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26 March 2017 14:49 (South Africa)
Politics

SA prisons officially places of cheaters

  • Branko Brkic
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    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics
bars in prison

Now the ball is now firmly in the court of the National Prosecuting Authority. Willie Hofmeyr’s Special Investigating Unit has handed over its report on tender rigging in the prisons system, with more than R2 billion involved. The NPA and correctional services minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula each got a copy; now we wait for action.

Put concisely, the report alleges collusion between Correctional Service Department officials and suppliers of catering services and security who drafted their own terms and conditions of employment.

Fingers point mainly to politically-connected empowerment group Bosasa and its affiliates, a one-stop shop for catering and security in prisons. The report apparently implicates some of the top drawer in the ANC. Going by the experience of past enquiries into the arms deal and parliamentary junkets, that would mean a quick and quiet death for the document.

Already, the sound of brooms sweeping all sorts of things under the carpet can be heard. The prisons department first contracted the special investigative unit in 2002 after a judicial commission uncovered large-scale corruption in prisons, but Mapisa-Nqakula failed to renew the unit's contract when it expired in April this year.

The investigation of the South African prisons system has been going on for quite some time. In 1998, prison service employees approached then-minister Ben Skosana alleging rampant corruption and financial mismanagement. Subsequent enquiries took in various parliamentary oversight bodies, including the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and that of the Department of Public Service and Administration.

In 2001, President Thabo Mbeki appointed the Jali Commission to look into corruption, crime, mismanagement, violence and intimidation in prisons. The commission found that 80% of staff at Durban Westville prison should be axed. But this is just one of about 240 prisons in South Africa, and the extent of corruption in the system appeared to be endemic, with warders involved in the murder of a whistle-blower; allowing prisoners to use departmental vehicles, and rampant nepotism involving unfair recruitment and promotions.

Then came the infamous Grootvlei prison video aired on national television, which showed warders selling juvenile prisoners to older inmates for sex, and showed them drinking with prisoners and selling drugs and firearms to their charges. One of the top officials at Grootvlei boasted to a prisoner that he was masterminding a plot to take charge of the facility. He was also a senior official in a major union organised at the prison, and served on the Mangaung city council, which incorporates Bloemfontein, as an elected representative.

The rot found in the system led to some dismissals, reprimands and criminal convictions, and this decay is now backed by the special investigative unit report. Former Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour released a shortened 60-page version of a 185-page summary compiled by the Jali Commission, until Parliament’s portfolio committee on correctional services forced him to reveal the whole document.

Jali found a convicted police officer was given preferential treatment in a cell equipped with a fridge, TV and video recorder. It said another prisoner was allowed to go to soccer matches, visit nightclubs and sleep over at his girlfriend’s house, while other male and female prisoners made payments to warders, including sexual favours, to enable them to escape. The national prison staff union, Popcru, is said to have formulated its own policies on how to operate the country’s detention centres.

In addition to firing the special investigations unit, Balfour’s successor, Mapisa-Nqakula, who took office in May this year, suspended national prisons commissioner Xoliswa Sibeko in July for renting expensive properties for herself and Balfour’s wife, Gauteng prisons boss, Thozama Mqobi-Balfour, even though they had official houses.

Over and above the obvious suspicions of nepotism engendered by the Balfours’ common profession, the prisons department is said to still be paying R30 000 and R35 000 a month for the two residences. Mapisa-Nqakula has indicated that former Big Man Balfour had approved the housing. She also told Parliament's correctional services committee in August she had a received a report on the Balfour housing scandal, but that no action could be taken "until due processes had been followed".

Bloemfontien’s Grootvlei was the place where South Africans first saw graphic evidence of prison corruption. In Sesotho, the city’s name is Mangaung, meaning "place of cheetahs”. It is tempting to think that there is an error in translation.

By Mark Allix

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

    He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

    Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

    Recent columns:

  • Politics

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