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Thabo Bester saga — Still no sign of officials’ accountability following prisoner’s escape

Thabo Bester saga — Still no sign of officials’ accountability following prisoner’s escape
Convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester escaped from Mangaung Correctional Centre in May 2022. (Archive photo: Becker Semela)

Eight months since the highly publicised Parliamentary hearing, little action has been taken by Parliament or Correctional Services.

It has been eight months since the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services held a two-day hearing into convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester’s prison escape from Mangaung Correctional Centre in May 2022. Since then, very little has happened to hold the authorities and their private sector partners to account.

In April, ministers, top police and prison officials, representatives from Integritron Integrated Solutions, and multinational security company G4S, which runs Mangaung prison, faced tough questions from MPs about Bester’s escape and subsequent investigations.

MPs appeared united across party lines, promising to hold those responsible accountable for their mistakes.

During the hearings, committee chairperson Bulelani Magwanishe suggested that G4S, whose officials are currently facing criminal charges, acted with “gross incompetence”.

MPs had harsh words for Integritron Integrated Solutions, the company that maintains the CCTV footage at the prison, for failing to timeously investigate its official, Tebogo Lipholo, who had switched off the CCTV cameras in the prison several times at the time of Bester’s escape.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) was criticised for its slow investigations, such as never questioning or surveilling Nandipha Magudumana, Bester’s alleged accomplice, and for not informing Bester’s rape victims that he was on the loose.

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) was admonished for several instances of incompetence and waiting 11 months before admitting to the public that Bester had in fact escaped. There was even a call for Minister Ronald Lamola to resign.

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

And yet, despite this public show of “accountability in action”, as chairperson Magwanishe described it in closing the April hearings, there has been little accountability.

Promises by MPs to call further witnesses and to produce a report for debate in the National Assembly have not materialised. Minister Lamola has not resigned. Only three officials from the DCS have been suspended: the controller and deputy controller at the Mangaung prison and the director of contract management.

When asked by GroundUp about the status of the disciplinary processes, the nature of the charges and whether the suspended officials are still being paid, DCS spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo replied: “We cannot divulge to the public internal disciplinary processes as those are between the employer and employee.”

Nxumalo said that he is “not aware” of disciplinary processes against any other DCS officials.

The DCS final investigation report into Bester’s escape is apparently completed and has been given to “relevant bodies”, according to Nxumalo. But Nxumalo did not answer directly whether the portfolio committee was furnished with the report.

Portfolio committee chair Magwanishe told GroundUp that the committee is not in possession of the report. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services also confirmed to GroundUp that it is not in possession of the report.

When asked whether any policy changes are being considered to ensure accountability and prevent something like Bester’s escape happening again, Nxumalo said that because the criminal case against Bester and his alleged accomplices is ongoing, “we will prefer not to engage on policy changes”.

As for multinational security company G4S, DCS has moved to cancel their contract — due to expire in 2026. Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts (a company contracting G4S, and in which G4S has a 20% share) owns the prison and has challenged the decision to end the contract. Mediation attempts have failed and the matter is now in court.

Shocking revelations

Among the revelations that the April parliamentary hearings brought to light were that Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts and G4S withheld evidence from SAPS and maintained that Thabo Bester was dead despite having evidence to the contrary.

G4S originally only suspended and dismissed three of the almost 30 officials on duty the night of the escape, but seven G4S officials were later arrested. Four are still facing criminal charges, including corruption and helping an inmate escape. No senior officials have been held accountable.

SAPS did not respond to GroundUp’s questions on whether any police officers have been held accountable for failing to timeously and efficiently investigate Bester’s escape.

By July 2022, two months after the escape, SAPS knew that the body found in Bester’s cell had not died by suicide, that Nandipha Magudumana was closely involved in the matter, and that the DNA of the body did not match that of Bester’s biological mother. Yet, it was only in March 2023 after GroundUp’s exposé that a track and trace team was set up to find Bester and Magudumana.

Magudumana was never brought in for questioning; the house in Sandton that she shared with Bester after the escape was never surveilled; and important investigative steps, such as identifying the body found in the cell, took place only after March 2023.

The case against Bester, Magudumana, and 10 others who have been charged, has been postponed several times for further investigations. Charges against three of the accused have since been withdrawn. The trial against the remaining nine accused will start in 2024.

When Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services will continue its hearings into Bester’s escape remains to be seen. According to Magwanishe, a scheduled meeting with Integritron Integrated Solutions has fallen through because an official, Teboho Lipholo, has been criminally charged and the committee is still seeking legal advice on how to proceed.

Magwanishe said that a long winter recess and a full committee schedule prevented the committee from meeting again and completing a report with the committee’s recommendations. “The Committee will deal with this matter as soon as the parliamentary programme permits,” he said.

“It is difficult to say at this stage if more people or departments will appear,” Magwanishe told GroundUp. “However, the committee will not hesitate to call more people or departments to account should the need arise. A lot will depend on information at the committee’s disposal.” DM

First published by GroundUp.

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