In a Gauteng shopping centre, Bruno the explosives dog lies down next to a briefcase. Having picked up the smell of explosives, the three-year-old Alsatian sends a signal to his handler, who in turn alerts the SAPS’s bomb squad technicians. This time it was not real, it was an exercise.

The shopping centre was Menlyn Park Mall, in Pretoria, and the exercise was an opportunity for the police to test some of their new equipment.

With the 2010 Soccer World Cup just a year and a bit away, police have been given an arsenal of new equipment to boost security during the event.

The most expensive equipment on display was the ROV, or Remote Operated Vehicle, a tracked robot, that comes with a 12 gauge shotgun and an array of sensors. The robot costs R2,5-million and police are receiving eight of them. There have also been bigger purchases.

Last week, the SAPS received two R44 Raven II helicopters, the first of six that should be in South Africa by the end of the year.

“We have been granted R650-million to purchase equipment, this not just for 2010, they will be used by the police afterwards,” said Commissioner Ben Groenewald, of Joints, the Joint Operational Intelligence Structure, which was mandated by the Cabinet to do the overall security and safety for the World Cup.

Also on the shopping list were six command and control vehicles, and new French crowd management control equipment.

Currently French trainers are training the police on how to use them.

But it was at Menlyn Park Shopping Centre where some of the sexy gadgets were on show.

Just after Bruno spotted the explosive device, trainee bomb disposal technician Ngomezulu Zulu was sent in, suited up in an EOD 9 bomb suit. It is a new-generation suit that offers greater flexibility and protection.

There are in fact two bombs in the mall: besides the briefcase, a limpet mine has been place on the side of a dustbin. It is Zulu’s task to dismantle it and make the mall safe.

One drawback of the suit is that it weighs 35kg.

“If the bomb went off now she would survive and probably just suffer some blast injuries,” explained Superintendent Mark Pillay, the national bomb disposal commander.

Zulu is just 2m from the bomb.

For Pillay, having the right equipment has become an arms race.

“With bomb disposal you need to keep abreast,” he explained.

The greatest concern the unit has is for what are termed IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices.These are a global threat, he says, and they have been used to great effect against the US forces in Iraq.

“They can make one from switches they can buy in a shop,” he said.

One of the latest pieces of hardware recently bought for the police was a portable X-ray machine which sends the digital image to a laptop, where operators assess what they are dealing with. It can peer into suspicious bags, with the bomb squad personnel at a safe distance.

With the first bomb made safe, now comes the chance for the ROV to strut its stuff.

These robots have made a name for themselves with US armed forces in Iraq. South Africa has had such robots previously, but this is state-of-the-art. A robot can look around walls, carry bombs away into safe areas and then destroy them with the shotgun mounted on top. It picks up the briefcase and carries it outside to a safe area.

This new member of the bomb squad is likely to be given the nickname Menlyn after the shopping centre where it first made its appearance.

Hopefully spectators coming to watch the soccer bonanza in 2010 won’t happen to see Menlyn in action.

AUTHOR: Shaun Smillie
DATED: 28th October 2008