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Sunday Times STLive By WERNER SWART, 2010-12-11

Monday, bloody Monday at the mall

ON GUARD: Police will step up their presence at shopping malls this festive season Picture: JAMES OATWAY
Image:

Monday mornings are the worst time to go shopping in South Africa's malls.

This is according to a report on violent crime at the country's shopping centres.

Researched by the Shopping Centre Security Initiative, which is run by the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, the report sheds light on the workings of criminal gangs that have switched to so-called "soft targets".

The report says that gangs:

  • Prefer to strike on Monday mornings;
  • Often target restaurants, jewellery and cellphone stores; and
  • Plan meticulous robberies, with some taking months to execute.

There were 786 incidents at shopping centres between October last year and the end of November this year. The worst months were March, with 76 incidents, and April, with 78.

Attacks at malls included hijackings, robberies, cash-in-transit robberies and burglaries.

Mall robberies have shown a steady decline over the past year - attributed in part to a high police presence during the soccer World Cup.

But, while the number of attacks last month was significantly down from the previous month, experts have warned that a last-minute Christmas shopping rush could trigger a new wave of attacks.

The police have adopted a battle plan that involves deploying specially trained policemen at shopping centres.

Gauteng was worst affected with 32 out of a total number of 57 incidents in October this year - compared with a total of 37 incidents countrywide in November.

In comparison, the Western Cape had nine incidents reported in October, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with six, and Mpumalanga with five.

National police spokesman Brigadier Sally de Beer said the festive season's anti-crime plans, incorporated under "Operation Duty Calls", began in earnest in November.

"Part of the operations, which will last until the end of January, includes ensuring safety and security at shopping malls throughout the country."

De Beer said: "We have also stepped up our surveillance techniques and deployed medium- to high-risk forces to patrol and visit the malls regularly."

Among the recent incidents were:

  • The murder of the owner of the NWJ jewellery store in Northgate, Johannesburg, on October 4 - a Monday. Kevin McLoughlin was shot and killed by a gang of four robbers. The attack was preceded by an attempted robbery at the store two weeks earlier; and
  • The killing of a police captain, Ananda Pedlar, at the Mall@Carnival in Brakpan, east of Johannesburg, on Friday, October 1. She and her husband, Patrick, were shot by a gang of men who had just robbed the NWJ jewellery store. Her husband survived.

According to James Oosthuizen, head of the Consumer Goods Council's Risk Initiative, malls were usually targeted between 8am and 9am.

This, he said could be because criminals believed staff were less vigilant at that time.

Oosthuizen said their preference for Monday mornings could be due to "the misconception that there is more cash available on site after the weekend".

He said this was not the case as cash-in-transit companies collected takings from stores and businesses throughout the weekend.

Dr Johan Burger, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said gangs targeting malls "are much smarter than we give them credit for".

" They do proper surveillance of the malls, gather intelligence from trading hours to how many people visit the shop daily. "

That way, Burger said, they determined how much a heist could be worth.

Burger and Oosthuizen agreed that better co-operation between police and shopping centres seemed to have paid off.

Burger said he believed many gangs now targeting malls were previously linked to bank robberies, cash-in-transit heists and ATM bombings.

"We saw a spike of bank robberies in 1996, but that figure decreased dramatically as banks and police implemented improved safety measures. But these syndicates didn't disappear," Burger said.

Dr Graham Wright, the CEO of Business Against Crime, said he was pleased with the decline in incidents for the current year.

Wright confirmed that the police's festive season campaign would see heightened police visibility at shopping centres and malls.

Major shopping malls across the country refused to comment on what measures they would be implementing for the festive season.

  • swartw@sundaytimes.co.za