‘Not just for politicians’. Driven by crime fears, SA’s armoured vehicle industry is booming

SA’s demand for armoured vehicles is booming, with one company in Gauteng saying it has seen an annual growth of up to a quarter in the past few years, with no signs of it slowing down.

“I do not sell cars. What we do sell is luxury security,” says Grant Anderson, the managing director of Armormax, a maker of armoured motor vehicles, as about six of his employees are busy quietly stripping a brand-new Land Rover Defender in his factory in Northriding, northwest of Johannesburg.

Another 70 young people busy themselves stripping and rebuilding the 25 top luxury sports utility vehicles (SUV) on the floor, down to their bare frames when News24 visits.

They cut out large chunks of metal from the doors and the fenders of the vehicles, leaving them looking like they have spent months at a scrapyard. They replace the glass on the windows with heavy, 40-millimetre bullet-stopping glass imported from Colombia in South America. They then surround the vehicle with bullet-proof steel which is imported mostly from Switzerland.

All of this adds 650 kilograms to the weight of the vehicle. The vehicle looks like any normal car, with the weight of the door being the only clue that you’re looking at an armoured vehicle. In a demonstration video, Anderson sits inside an SUV while a colleague shoots at it with an AR-15 rifle to demonstrate his confidence in the technology.

At the eastern end of the city, in Germiston, another group of employees have been working at retrofitting vehicles for Armoured Mobility since 2015. The vehicles get sold at the two-year-old Armoured Mobility’s dealership on Grayston Drive in the entrance to Sandton, SA’s commercial and financial services hub.

Nabeel Khan, the general manager of Armoured Mobility, says his company will retrofit any vehicle with the armoured technology at a cost of R1.2 million but this can go as low as R480 000, depending on the plan. Most customers at these levels are security companies looking for vehicles that can protect their security guards.

But the dealership’s location is quite a reminder of why more people need the armoured vehicles. Some high-profile assassinations have occurred on Grayston Drive in recent years, including that of businessman Vusi Mhlanzi, who was murdered in August 2017 a few metres from the dealership’s current location. Johannesburg suffers from a high murder rate, with those that occur in Sandton often receiving more attention.

The entry of companies such as Armormax, MMI Armoured Cars and Armoured Mobility in the armoured vehicle business has helped lower costs. 

Branded vehicle manufacturers can often cost up to six times what Armormax says it charges.

At just under R17 000 per month, this widens the retail market away from Armormax’s top end and makes armoured vehicles affordable to a lot more people.   

Booming market

So, what is driving the growing numbers of people who want to drive armoured vehicles? 

This is not a story about motor vehicle sales. It is rather a story about the lack safety and security in SA.

Anderson explains:

The reason there are people copying us and getting into this market is because the industry is growing. The need is growing. This is driven by crime. Now, entrepreneurs need to secure their cars. It’s no longer just the politicians and government who only used to buy armoured vehicles.

On 17 November, when Police Minister Bheki Cele publishes the quarterly crime statistics to end-September, he may reveal that a tough economy has pushed up violent crime and murders from the 68 per day recorded to end-June. While the second quarter showed an overall murder rate decline of 3%, it is still one of the highest in the world.

“Unfortunately, crime is on the increase in SA and has been increasing for years. People who can afford armoured vehicles have been looking into adding those into their armoury of security,” says Anderson.

“We have phenomenal opportunities in this country. It’s a great country. But we need the security. We provide the security and encourage people to stay and not emigrate because of security,” says Anderson.

Better protection

Armormax has been in the armoured vehicle business for 17 years. The vehicles are sold or rented out in a strategic partnership with MMI Armoured Cars, which is situated in trendy Melrose Arch, north of Johannesburg.

Their elite clients are high-net-worth individuals or dignitaries who feel the need to add security to their already top-end luxury vehicles retrofitted with bullet-resistant windows and steel.

Once Anderson is done with them, at a cost of R1.8 million each to fit the bullet-stopping equipment, the vehicles can keep occupants safe and withstand assault by handguns and military-grade assault rifles such as the AK-47 and R5. The run-flat tyres allow the vehicles to keep driving after being shot.

Such has been the insecurity, that Armormax’s business has been growing at 20% to 25% per year in recent years, says Michael Broom, the head of sales and marketing. Armormax will retrofit more than 100 luxury vehicles this year, he says.

Armormax has agreements with the manufacturers who have certified their products and help train their staff. This ensures that customers retain the warranties and the maintenance benefits after the modifications have been done on the vehicles. 

According to Broom:

We only operate at the top end. We build the best armoured-vehicle package money can buy.

As if to reinforce the increasing security requirements, the company says more of its clients are demanding the highest levels of protection than ever before, looking for up to B6 level protection, enough to stop a rifle-calibre bullet.

“We are now building far more level B6 than we did about six years ago. Back then, there would be one or two B6 a year, with the rest being B4 protection,” says Broom, referring to a level of protection against handguns.

“Now the split is half-half.”

It takes about 1 800 man-hours, which is about three months, to retrofit a level B6 and a month for the B4 retrofit. 

Broom added:

Discretion is important. It is key. Nobody must be able to tell from the outside that you are sitting in an armoured car. From the inside as well.

Market dynamics

Vehicle manufacturers and retailers would be over the moon with any growth in sales. Domestic new vehicle sales fell just over 4% to 46 021 units in September when compared to sales last year, according to industry statistics.

Armoured Mobility’s Khan is not permitted by his employer to disclose any sales figures. Nor is he permitted to disclose any numbers about the people employed manufacturing the vehicles.

Khan says Armoured Mobility has partnered with some of the original equipment manufacturers, the vehicle makers who must certify the work done by his company. This helps the owner to retain the warranties, functionalities of the vehicle and service plans.

Some banks have also come on board and accepted Armoured Mobility’s modifications to the vehicles and are able to finance them. At an average instalment of R17 000 per month for new armoured vehicles at the lower end, many South Africans will be seeking safety behind the impenetrable steel.

Victims of crime

So, what kind of people buy these kinds of vehicles?

Khan says his customers are often those who have been victims of violent crime, or who have a reason to fear they have a target on their back. He says:

People spend a lot of money on security in their homes. Many people live behind high-security walls and have security guards watching over the property, so it is on the road where you are most vulnerable. That is where the armoured vehicle comes in.

Some of the people who are buying armoured vehicles at Armoured Mobility have recently had their family members killed, or recently suffered violent crimes like hijacking.

Large corporates needing to fulfil their fiduciary duty to secure their executives are the largest source of revenue for armoured vehicle makers. Also, international companies setting up operations on the continent have a particular protocol about security. Visiting foreign businesspeople and foreign government representatives have minimum security protocols that must be met.

“I have had clients crying at this table. Someone who has just been hijacked or kidnapped does not want to go through that again,” says Anderson. “They come here having been victims of violent crime and never want to go through it again. Sometimes they have thought this through and planned the purchase over months and years.”

With the deteriorating crime situation in SA, the need for armoured vehicles for those who can afford them will keep growing, says Anderson. 

“The social-economic problems that we are going through are never going to be solved in a generation. Desperate people who have no choice turn to crime,” says Anderson.

“Unfortunately, with the kind of problems the police are having, this is not going to be resolved soon. The target [of criminals] is on the backfoot. But we have a solution. We secure your home. Secure your vehicle. Secure your family, and then you can live a great life.”

Anderson adds:

We do what we can to prevent people from emigrating.

And the ultimate goal, Anderson says, is to reduce the impact of crime on the country’s potential.

“SA is a great country,” says Anderson. “It has great people. Great entrepreneurs. But unfortunately, crime is a nightmare.”