REPEAT VANISHING ACTS
‘He simply didn’t exist’ — Aaron Motsoaledi explains how Thabo Bester slipped through Home Affairs cracks
The Home Affairs Minister has provided fascinating insight into prison escapee Thabo Bester’s background. It turns out Bester is South African but was never registered on any official system due to intricate family happenings.
Archives at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg show that on 13 June 1986 a baby boy was born there.
That boy was Thabo Bester.
His mother, at the time, was not registered on any Home Affairs database and neither was he.
This is the core of how Bester, now a convicted rapist and murderer who escaped from prison, managed to stay off official identification systems in South Africa.
If he now wants an official identity document, this can be sorted out within a week.
Identity rooted in crime
During a two-hour press conference on Friday 14 April, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi explained in detail how officials tried to trace where exactly the man, who has gone by various aliases and who is also known as the “Facebook rapist” due to crimes he committed, was from.
He said official traces of Bester’s identity could only be found via the prison system as an inmate and on South African Police Service data.
As Motsoaledi tried to unravel a dense web of happenings relating to Bester’s identity, he interjected a few times, saying: “Let me not confuse you”.
The crux of what he said was that while Bester was South African, there was technically no trace of his existence in the country as he was never registered with the Department of Home Affairs.
Despite apparently being involved in business — or scams styled as such — he had no identity documents and may not have had any bank accounts in his name.
It was believed Nandipha Magudumana, who styled herself as a celebrity doctor, assisted Bester.
The duo was traced to Tanzania where they were arrested last weekend.
They were brought back to South Africa in the early hours of Thursday and both face several criminal charges.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Damning timeline — Government knew of Thabo Bester escape as early as October 2022 but failed to act
No trace on databases
During the lengthy media briefing on Friday, it became clear that much like GroundUp’s work exposed Bester’s prison break, Home Affairs was eventually able to solve the mystery relating to his background thanks to media coverage of the scandal.
Motsoaledi explained that there were three databases of people who were in this country legally.
These were the:
- National population register where births, deaths, identification, and passports of South African citizens were recorded.
- National immigration identification system that recorded asylum seekers and refugees.
- Visa adjudication system that covers anyone in South Africa with any type of visa.
Motsoaledi said that when news of Bester’s prison escape broke, Home Affairs officials realised they were involved in the broader matter and so tried to find Bester and Magudumana on their databases.
Only two Thabo Besters were found on the national population register, but neither was the prison escapee.
Motsoaledi said “we found nothing” on the other two databases.
“He simply did not exist on our systems,” Motsoaledi later added.
Tracking an alias
Bester had also gone by the name TK Nkwana, so when Home Affairs officers had no luck in tracing Thabo Bester, they turned their attention to that name.
Motsoaledi said 16 individuals matched it on the national population register, but based on photographs of them, none were Bester.
“We were very stuck,” he said of the process of trying to trace Bester’s identification.
A woman who said she was Bester’s mother, Maria Meisie Mabaso, was subsequently interviewed in the media.
Motsoaledi said Home Affairs officials tracked her down and spoke to her — “she insisted she’s the mother of Thabo Bester.”
Proof of birth
She said she had given birth to him on 13 June 1986 at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg.
“Indeed, we rushed [there] and checked their archives,” Motsoaledi said.
The archives showed he had been born there to one Meisie Bester (the surname Mabaso had used at the time along with the first name she also used).
Motsoaledi said the situation was confusing, though, because Mabaso had four children but only three were on the national population register.
The fourth — Thabo Bester — was not.
Motsoaledi explained that this was because of Mabaso’s history.
She was born in 1965 with another surname altogether — neither Bester nor Mabaso — and her birth was not registered at Home Affairs.
Her own mother, Bester’s grandmother, was born in 1938 as a Bester.
The grandmother had been a domestic worker and according to Mabaso: “She loved white children more than her own children.”
In 2002 the grandmother died.
Only then did Mabaso get registered at Home Affairs and she took on the surname Mabaso as it was her aunt’s.
She also registered her three other children under that surname.
Motsoaledi said Mabaso had not registered Bester at Home Affairs because in 2002 when she and her three other children were registered “Thabo was 16 and he’d disappeared.”
Meanwhile, Bester was enrolled at Laerskool Danie Theron in Johannesburg on 14 January 1997 under the name Thabo Bester (it appeared his mother’s employer had done this.)
No birth certificate was used to enrol him, simply his date of birth was provided.
In 2002, the same year his grandmother died and when he was in Grade Five, Bester left school.
US passport mystery
Motsoaledi said Bester never had an ID document, any passport of his own and may not have had any bank accounts.
When he was detained in Tanzania last week, he was found with a US passport in the name of Tom Williams Kelly.
Motsoaledi said it was not yet clear if this was a legitimate or fraudulent passport.
It was not used to cross South Africa’s border.
In the case of Magudumana, Motsoaledi said she was easily found on Home Affairs databases.
She obtained her first passport in 2007 when she was 19 years old.
Crossing the border
It expired in 2017 and she was issued with an updated one set to expire in 2027.
Motsoaledi said she used the updated passport to leave South Africa via the Beitbridge Border Post on 9 May last year and three days later she returned from Bulawayo via OR Tambo International Airport.
The passport was not used again.
When she was arrested in Tanzania, though, Magudumane was found with that passport plus two passports in the name of Mmereka Patience Martha Ntshani — an online search shows she is a “healthcare practitioner.”
One of those two passports had expired in 2022, but ahead of that, in 2019, Ntshani had applied for a new passport that was issued.
Motsoaledi said that on 27 March Ntshani approached police saying she had given it to Magudumane and a man known as TK Nkwana (the alias Bester adopted), and she was worried what they would use it for as she had read news about them and the prison escape.
Violation of a dead body
Meanwhile, court cases relating to Magudumana and Bester have started developing.
While Magudumana and Teboho Lipholo — another alleged co-conspirator in Bester’s escape — appeared in the Bloemfontein Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, Bester appeared there on Friday.
#sapsHQ Convicted rapist and murderer #ThaboBester is to appear before Bloemfontein Magistrate Court this morning. He at this stage faces a charge of escaping from lawful custody, defeating the ends of justice, violation of a dead body and fraud. MEhttps://t.co/TFqrtzmqV7 pic.twitter.com/wqPJgfHarh
— SA Police Service 🇿🇦 (@SAPoliceService) April 14, 2023
National police spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe said: “Bester was serving a life sentence imprisonment at the time of his escape.
“He at this stage faces a charge of escaping from lawful custody, defeating the ends of justice, violation of a dead body and fraud.” DM