GOVERNMENT INSTITUTIONS OP-ED
Thabo Bester saga illustrates the state disintegration that endangers the public
Much of the media has been dominated by events surrounding the escape of convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester from Mangaung Maximum Security Prison and the alleged complicity of Dr Nandipha Magudumana, who is apparently his lover, in his escape as well as in various business ventures, some allegedly conducted from within prison.
I do not usually engage with escapes and criminal activity, but the events surrounding this case have presented potential dangers to the public without any warning issued by the authorities to alert them to the escape and the dangers that such a criminal being at large potentially presented, especially to women.
I have also followed the exposés, initially only by GroundUp, and had a sense of disquiet at the failure of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) and SA Police Service (SAPS) to perform their duties to prevent and speedily apprehend Bester and Magudumana, despite being provided with information about the escape for some months, but failing to acknowledge the offers of assistance or act on these.
It is clearly scandalous that an escape is only publicly acknowledged some 10 months after it has happened, and that the private company G4S, contracted by DCS to run Mangaung prison, continued to deny the truth of an escape having happened up to last week. They have not – to my knowledge – acknowledged it to date.
The ministers of justice and correctional services and of police, in press conferences before and after the arrest of Bester and Magudumana, have provided incoherent presentations, with the minister of correctional services on one occasion laughing and in another garbling the surname of Dr Nandipha Magudumana.
There is no sense that the ministers appreciate that there is a widespread belief that their departments have been found wanting and the media are now sceptical of any claims they make.
Thus, some media question whether it is true, as claimed by Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, that South African crime intelligence had in fact followed Bester and Magudumana to their arrest in Tanzania. It is suggested in contradiction in one report that it was in fact something that took them by surprise and that they were arrested in Tanzania independent of any intelligence gathering on the side of Crime Intelligence.
Tankiso Makhetha and Graeme Hosken write in the Sunday Times (behind paywall) that:
“At a hastily convened media conference yesterday, Police Minister Bheki Cele praised Crime Intelligence, claiming that South African operatives were on the tails of the fugitives — both aged 35 — and had them arrested on Friday night shortly after they left their hotel in Dar es Salaam.
“’Our forces, with the assistance of Interpol and crime intelligence, have been working on the Bester case. [Bester and Magudumana] were spotted leaving their hotel in a black SUV by people who were working on the case. They followed them and found them with a third person, a Mozambican national, and they found various passports on them’, said Cele.
“But senior police sources close to the case have rubbished Cele’s claims, saying the arrests were ‘sheer chance’ and took place at a routine police roadblock on the road to the Kenya border.
“‘We were not actively looking for the couple in that country because our intelligence informed us that they were either in Zimbabwe or Mozambique,’ one of the sources said.’”
It may well be that Crime Intelligence was involved in the arrest, but the fact that it is being questioned points to the sense that many have that the SAPS, like the DCS, have been arrogant and failed to take the necessary steps to bring these people to book. I leave aside whether this also raises valid questions regarding the general competence of the services and the ministers concerned.
It is established that community news agency, GroundUp, was continually engaged in one-way communication with the DCS about information that they had in relation to Bester and by that time, Bester had already escaped. For most of this period, as GroundUp reports, they got no acknowledgement of their inquiries and there is no indication that DCS or SAPS did anything about the leads that GroundUp provided.
This is highly irresponsible for various reasons. First, a dangerous rapist and murderer was on the run and was allowed to do a range of things for 10 months before the DCS acknowledged that there had been an escape. In this period, he was allegedly involved in numerous fraudulent activities with Dr Magudumana.
The concerns that people have related among others to false communications regarding the death of Bester in the initial official statements. These statements claimed he had died, burning in a cell. We now know it was a fire that incinerated a person – who has not yet been identified – who the autopsy report reveals was already dead before the fire. The DCS originally claimed not to have received the autopsy report, though GroundUp had access to it. (See here and here) How could that be? Was it a lie on the part of the DCS?
The man who was incinerated in the fire, it was reported in the autopsy, was dead through being hit with a blunt instrument and had died before the fire. And for reasons that have not been explained, he was in the cell that Bester previously occupied, but Bester had been moved to another cell a few days before the fire, the day of his escape. This was part of extensive collaboration in his escape by warders that has now been revealed. (See, for example, here and here)
On the night of Bester’s escape, it has been reported that a vehicle, which had not been properly identified and processed as required by prison regulations, arrived with a kist and this was kept in a refrigerator for two days before the fire/escape. It is reported that that kist contained the body of the person who was incinerated in the fire.
And when Bester was moved from his cell, the CCTV cameras were shifted or tampered with in a way that made it impossible to monitor what was happening with Bester and the escape that took place, apparently, with the assistance of officials from G4S.
After the story had long been revealed by GroundUp and followed by other media to a lesser extent, and after much of the rest of South Africa accepted that Bester had escaped almost a year before, the DCS held a press conference and confirmed for the first time on 25 March that there had been an escape. No more was said at that stage.
They repeatedly stated what was already known and cautioned about information that came from leaks or from the media. In other words, their focus was not on accounting for the escape of a dangerous criminal or warning the public of the danger. That was not done even up to the time of Bester’s arrest on 7 April. Their concern was the leaks that led to revealing that the escape had in fact happened. It was not the DCS that revealed that there had been an escape. It also had little to say about what had happened leading to the escape and what would be done to apprehend Bester.
When GroundUp approached the SAPS to ask to whom they should give information about this escape, with a view to apprehending Bester, they were not referred to any particular high-ranking or even low-ranking police official:
“The DCS statement [of 25 March 2023] also appeals for the public’s assistance in capturing Bester. On this point, it is worth noting that GroundUp has been attempting to share the information we have with the police (without divulging sources). But when we tried to find out from the police who we should send our information to, we were perfunctorily told to share our information with the Crimewatch line. It remains unclear who in the police force is actually looking for Bester and investigating the circumstances of his escape.”
In other words, the way in which not only the prisons department, but also the SAPS responded, was contemptuous of media information/assistance in apprehending Bester, while it is unclear what investigation was being done by any relevant section of the state authorities.
As indicated, Minister Lamola responded to an initial enquiry concerning the escape – on television – with laughter. In recent weeks he has responded with more gravity, but his initial response is part of the failure of the state to act as it is bound to do; to not only ensure that criminals are kept in prison but also swiftly recaptured if they escape.
That he has still not come to grips even with the dramatis personae in the case was illustrated in his fumbling the name of Magudumana at a media conference broadcast on television stations immediately after the capture of Bester and Magudumana. That media conference had both Lamola and Minister of Police Bheki Cele presenting incoherent accounts of their efforts to bring Bester and Magudumana to book.
The media has been very uneven in the way this has been reported. As indicated, GroundUp did the basic work, followed to some extent by Sowetan and Sunday Times, TimesLive, News24 and Daily Maverick, both of the latter relying mainly on their partnership with GroundUp, with some of their own newsgathering.
But some of the reports in the media are misleading, for example, some suggested that Dr Nandipha Magudumana may be charged and the reason given for why she may be charged is related to her membership of the Health Professionals Council having been suspended and she is consequently not allowed to practise, but is still practising.
Having said that, the reports continue by suggesting that she could face prosecution if she were to be practising, despite not being registered, by virtue of not paying her membership fees leading to her registration being suspended.
Now it is strange that this refers to Dr Magudumana, who is alleged to have been harbouring and assisting and colluding with an escaped dangerous criminal, a rapist and a murderer (not an alleged one or a person under suspicion). She is also alleged to have been complicit in some of his activities illegally conducted from when he was in Mangaung prison.
She is also allegedly responsible for the cremation of the body that was incinerated in the prison cell previously occupied by Bester, thus preventing any full investigation into the person’s identity. There are also false claims she made to acquire other bodies from mortuaries, one of which she simply dumped in a river.
She is also allegedly involved in some of the fraudulent scams that Bester pulled off in relation to property and other deals, from inside and outside prison. Now, if Dr Magudumana might be charged as one of the accused with these serious crimes, is it not to trivialise the crimes which she may face to focus on her potentially being prosecuted for practising as a doctor while not being in good standing for not paying fees?
Warning the public
This, again, does not alert the public sufficiently to the person who endangers the public, who she has allegedly colluded with, and has protected and apparently housed in this period.
It is also troubling that a story that is billed as “exclusive” appears to “humanise” Bester, voicing his defences that were not entertained by the courts, as with his not really intending to hurt or kill the women he attacked and that he really liked them.
But the main responsibility is with the authorities to warn the public as they ought to have done about a dangerous serial rapist and murderer who has been on the loose. That has never been done.
When one reads what has happened in this saga, it reinforces the sense that we are in a situation where state institutions, in this case, concerned with public security, are eroding, collapsing and generally dysfunctional. The media conferences that officials have held after these events have reinforced the view of incompetence, but also a complete lack of connection with the sentiments and fears that people legitimately have about this escape.
I am aware that this is but one site of crisis of the current state and ANC-led government, but it has played out for some time in the public eye, but with remarkable insensitivity to how state (in)action reinforces the already low confidence that the public has in the “security cluster”. DM
Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is a former political prisoner. He has published books and articles in a range of fields. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner
This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website polity.org.za