Advice and Opinion

Bomb threats in South Africa’s malls: what to know and how to respond


In recent weeks, there have many a number of accounts of explosive and incendiary (fire-starting) devices being reported at various shopping centres and retail stores across the country. Hoaxes orterrorist plots? The truth is unknown but it is no secret, malls and shopping centres across the country are being targeted by the criminal underworld.

As South African Police Services commander-in-chief Bheki Cele tackles crime in the country, the shopping centre industry like other industries, is forced to up-the-ante against criminal activity to ensure safety of staff, tenants and most importantly shoppers.

Lemok Group founder and Chief Executive Officer Lebogang Mokubela said in an interview that more needs to be done: “Last month, we saw a spike in mall robberies. This month, we see reports of bombs in various shopping centres and stores with KwaZulu-Natal being the first to be hit. This is another disruptive force to impact the already strained shopping centre and retail industry in South Africa-an industry that employs thousands of people as well as contribute towards boosting the socio-economic growth. Not to mention, that many shopping centres supposed to provide a safe environment for shoppers and their families. We need to join forces to protect shoppers and tenants alike,” he said.

What to do when a bomb threat is made or when an unidentified device is found?

Is the device a fake? Is someone making a hoax call? Or is it a terrorist plot? There are no reliable statistics specific to bomb threats.

According to Lebogang, anecdotal evidence suggests that such threats are most likely benign, but with hundreds or even thousands of lives at stake, shopping centres and retailers can’t afford to take chances.

While empty threats and hoaxes don’t harm anyone affected, the mere utterance damages perceptions of management’s ability to provide a safe environment for staff and shoppers. The culprits often turn out to be disgruntled employees, unsatisfied customers or pranksters. Nobody knows the true intentions of a bomb threat or a suspicious device, we have to take every threat seriously Saying this, if management has contingency plans and precautionary measures in place, they will restore any lost faith by staff, tenants and shoppers,” he said.

Lebogang added that during a threat, remaining calm and collected is first and foremost-especially from managers.

He has highlighted the following points to consider for shopping centre and retail managers and staff:

  • Put a comprehensive bomb threat response plan in place. Every shopping centre and store must have a checklist in place for receiving a bomb threat and contacting authorities, a plan for searching the building, a designated route to evacuate tenants and shoppers and a procedure for searching evacuation routes and the holding area. These procedures should be practiced through simulated drills twice each year.
  • Educate phone operators and receptionists and provide a checklist of information. All employees should have a bomb threat checklist on hand. This checklist should include the time the call was received; the actual words used by the caller; and any specific information given-such as the location of the bomb, the time it is set to explode, a description of the device or the reason for the threat. On the checklist, callers are also asked to describe the voice of the caller by approximate age and gender, as well as any background noise they may have heard, such as street noises, machinery etc.
  • Determine the credibility of a threat. Look at the details of the threat, the type of store or mall being threatened and the history of bomb threats within the retail industry, geographic area and staff. It’s also important to keep a history of disgruntled employees or customers to help determine who might be calling. If the threat is specific as to time and location, the call should be taken seriously and evacuation should be considered, especially if there is no time to search for a device.
  • Decide whether to evacuate. Based on the information gathered from steps above, after consulting with the police, should make the decision whether to evacuate. Due to the fact that many of the threats are hoaxes, evacuations are not entirely necessary every time there is a threat. In some instances, evacuations may cause further hrm to tenants and shoppers especially during peak shopping season.
  • Provide calm, direct assistance during the evacuation. Once the decision has been made to evacuate an area make an announcement through the public-address system. Don’t give too much information and don’t panic people by using the word bomb etc. Let people know that security personnel are investigating an incident and ask everyone to exit the building quickly.

Lebogang said that that there are people who get joy from making fake bomb threats however, there is no denying the increase in crime.

The plague of crime is not only limited to South Africa. Other countries too, face the scourge of crime too. My advice for the retail and shopping centre industry in South Africa is to reinvent themselves and look at retail from the eyes of the shopper. Shoppers want safety and security and even though crime cannot entirely be prevented, plans need to be in place to re- establish shopper confidence,” he concluded.