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Thabo Bester prison escape — MPs pull no punches as G4S defends reputation in Parliament grilling

Thabo Bester prison escape — MPs pull no punches as G4S defends reputation in Parliament grilling
Thabo Bester (illustrated) was arrested in Tanzania along with his associate Nandipha Magudumana on 7 April, eleven months after his escape. He was brought back to South Africa, back to prison, early on Thursday, 13 April, 2023. (Illustration: Lisa Nelson)

Private security firm G4S, which operates and partly owns the Mangaung Correctional Centre, claims it cooperated with state’s investigation.

Multinational security company G4S faced tough questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) on Wednesday about the escape of murderer and rapist Thabo Bester. G4S operates and partly owns the Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC) from which Bester escaped in May 2022.

The company’s representatives insisted that they had fully cooperated with the authorities. But MPs accused G4S of failing the people of South Africa and refusing to take responsibility. They frequently expressed anger and frustration at the evasive answers from the company’s representatives.

G4S was expected to appear before the Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Correctional Services last week, but declined to do so, citing confidentiality clauses and the provisions of the Correctional Services Act. The company said that Parliament needed to issue a summons so that their representatives could be released from those clauses. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thabo Bester parliamentary briefing postponed as G4S no-show sparks committee anger

Cobus Groenewoud, a director for G4S Africa, told Parliament that if they had appeared without being summonsed, they would have broken the law.

“Had we attended last week, we would have been legally barred for known reasons from acting and participating fully and sharing all information available to us with the committee,” he claimed.

Groenewoud said that the Correctional Services Act bars G4S from disclosing confidential information to a third party (in this case, Parliament).

But, according to the Act, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services is able to authorise the contractor (G4S) to disclose confidential information, and G4S was invited to Parliament by Makgothi Thobakgale, the National Commissioner himself, before the initial hearing.

G4S was represented by Groenewoud, the head of MCC Joseph Monyante, and the head of risk and audit at MCC Gert Beyleveld. All three appeared under oath.

“Mangaung Correctional Centre has been one of the most secure correctional centres in South Africa,” Monyante told the committee. Three people have escaped from the prison over the past 22 years, he claimed.

Much of the questioning centred on the events up to 3 May when a burnt body was found in Bester’s cell and he was, incorrectly, declared dead. Monyante revealed that after SAPS had completed its examination and the forensic team removed the body, the possessions in the cell were removed. Among these were “an authorised laptop and an unauthorised cellphone”.

Monyante said that staff at Mangaung Correctional Centre reported a smell of petrol coming from Bester’s belongings and they reported this to the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) on the day after the fire.

Groenewoud said the CCTV system was fully operational, except for the cameras covering the administrative building as well as the unit where Bester was held.

A power failure caused the CCTV system to stop recording between 7:38pm on 2 May and 4:11am on 3 May. The fire broke out between 2am and 4am on 3 May.

G4S also confirmed that CCTV footage shows two unidentified figures running toward the Administrative Building. They were unable to confirm whether the two people were inmates or officials.

Groenewoud said that they were only shown the DNA results of the body found in the cell in February 2023 during a meeting with the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (Jics). These results showed a mismatch between the body and Bester’s mother. He said SAPS opened a case of escape on 14 January, but that G4S was not informed of this.

A report by G4S handed to Parliament also stated that G4S employees had been suspended in relation to the events of 3 May 2022.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Damning timeline — Government knew of Thabo Bester escape as early as October 2022 but failed to act

Tough questions

G4S’s representatives were asked several times why they did not investigate the circumstances surrounding Bester’s escape. Groenewoud maintained that it was not within the “remit or skill set” of G4S to conduct forensic investigations.

“It’s not for us to link those [suspended officials] to the ultimate crime. That is for the police services to do,” Groenewoud said.

He insisted that this was the role of the police and DCS, and in that regard, G4S had been fully cooperative. The investigations conducted by G4S, Groenewoud said, were related to policies and processes not followed by their employees.

DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach questioned how G4S could be satisfied with their investigation after only three employees had been suspended when Bester must have had the collaboration of several more officials to orchestrate his escape.

Bester’s access to a laptop computer was also questioned. G4S revealed that Bester had access to a laptop because he was registered for a graphic design course with Damelin College. But ANC MP Richard Dyantyi pointed out that Bester’s course had ended in 2021.

When asked by Breytenbach how the personal computers of inmates are checked and monitored, Monyante did not provide a definitive response.

MP Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen (ANC) asked how someone who used Facebook to lure rape victims was given a device that enabled him to have international meetings, and maybe lure women while he was in prison. Monyante replied that all inmates at MCC are seen as human beings and Bester was entitled to have a computer.

MP Steven Swart (ACDP) asked about the media reports that Bester ran a multimillion-rand company from prison. Groenewoud denied having seen the reports. (Before publishing its article about Bester’s media company, GroundUp contacted G4S about this video and gave the company an opportunity to respond.)

Monyante was asked whether G4S did lifestyle audits on their staff by Breytenbach, to which he replied there was no reason to do so.

Beyleveld revealed that an unauthorised vehicle entered the prison without a gate pass several days before Bester’s escape. He said that seven people have been suspended in relation to this.

Beyleveld confirmed that a TV standing cabinet was in the vehicle and it was taken into the skills development area of the prison. It was not repaired or inspected. He said it is possible that a corpse could have fitted inside the vehicle.

Breytenbach questioned how G4S was unaware of the vehicle entering the prison until a few weeks ago. She also asked how the body could have gotten to the cell without being noticed.

Beyleveld said they were unable to respond to the question and said the matter will be investigated by SAPS. “We run a very good prison. Our track record explains itself. This unfortunate incident is a result of non-reporting,” he told the committee.

“How did Bester get out?” asked Breytenbach.

Beyleveld responded that this is part of the SAPS investigation. “I don’t believe that is my purpose now.”

“You don’t think it is part of your responsibility to determine how a murderer and rapist got out of your prison? Get real!” replied Breytenbach. DM

First published by GroundUp.

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