Defend Truth


Thabo Bester saga shows gaping holes in accountability systems for government, prisons, ministers


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

There is no need to get into the tawdry details of the Thabo Bester matter. It has captivated the nation’s attention in a textbook case of truth being stranger than fiction.

It’s no “tall tale”, but the reality of South African life, encapsulating all its flaws, weaknesses and dangerous absurdities in a nutshell.

There are many more questions than answers and Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services did a commendable job when it started to pose those last week. But as Glynnis Breytenbach, a former NPA prosecutor who can only be described as a “battle axe”, rightly said, there is a need to get to the very bottom of what transpired. 

In particular, one hopes that the G4S contract will be scrutinised. Who benefits from this contract, aside from G4S, to the tune of R41-million per month to guard more than 2,000 prisoners? Given the collusion which was laid bare at the Zondo Commission, would we be at all surprised if there was collusion by those in authority (including, possibly, elected representatives?) and the private sector? 

And we should rethink the mantra that private sector involvement is the panacea to the ill of corruption. It is not. 

Astonishingly, in 2018, Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie, who served a 15-year sentence for two robberies, said: “I lived like a king in jail, I never did my own laundry, never ate prison food for a decade, my friends like Kenny Kunene drank alcohol freely, I controlled prison. We formed part of the 1% of prisoners who live like lords in jail.”

In South Africa, we don’t learn the lessons.

In a democracy that takes accountability seriously, the ministers of justice, correctional services, police and home affairs would all be without jobs after this fiasco. After all, where does political accountability lie if not with these political appointees? But perhaps, like their boss, the President, the extent of their accountability was that they were “disturbed”. 

Vincent Magwenya, the presidential spokesperson, told us the President was “fully aware” of the Bester saga. That’s a relief. 

Presumably, Ramaphosa is “aware” that the law truly has no teeth, that so many were so malleable that this murderer, rapist and con man has been living large as a prison escapee since May last year. 

Presumably, the President is also aware that it took GroundUp to doggedly follow up on a leak by inspecting judge of prisons, Justice Edwin Cameron.

Did the President watch the abysmal performances of his ministers before Parliament, one wonders? In particular, how on earth does one as incompetent (which seems like too kind a word, really) as Police Minister Bheki Cele retain his position? We know, of course, that the answer lies in ANC politics and not what is good for the country, even as he presides over unacceptably high levels of crime.

Magwenya went on to say that Ramaphosa believes the Bester situation should not have happened or “shouldn’t be allowed to happen”, and that the President was “equally encouraged” by law enforcement agencies’ “rapid” response. 

Ramaphosa was “confident that people will be held accountable” for the situation.

Was the President encouraged by incompetence and ham-handedness?

There was nothing “rapid” about the response of law enforcement agencies, unfortunately, and the people whose heads ought to roll are under the President’s nose. 

Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi, who never exits the same sentence he enters (as Richard Ben Cramer famously said in his book, What It Takes: The Way to the White House), gave long, mangled answers to eNCA’s Anneli Hattingh in the wake of Bester’s rearrest. 

There are many South Africans who exist without an identity document, Motsoaledi seemed to accept, almost without question. Bester is/was one of them. The porous borders added to the woeful tale and made Bester’s escape that much easier.

But, none of this would come as a surprise to South Africans, well accustomed to our government’s incompetence. It is what happens when a country is in freefall and when the President wafts between inertia, disinterest or simply being Pollyanna.

Everywhere we look, things are coming undone. 

As the President spoke at the recent South African Investment Conference, swathes of the country were sitting in the dark for up to 10 hours a day, the Post Office was being liquidated and most towns and cities are on the brink of collapse thanks to ANC corruption and poor governance.

Ramaphosa cannot be relied upon to deal with any of the things which ail us, least of all the electricity crisis. Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa is nothing but bluster and confusion. Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy, where the real power resides (including all-important procurement powers), declared that Ramokgopa had done well thus far, given that he had visited 14 power stations. 

“[Ramokgopa] has done the ‘most difficult job’ visiting 14 power stations in just one month in office. No other minister has done that,” boasted Mantashe.

So this is what dealing with our foremost challenge looks like? Where is the cohesive plan, aside from an addiction to coal and its related contracts? Because it only feels as if too many cooks are spoiling the broth. Of course, there is no need for urgency when the President and his ministers have an uninterrupted power supply at our expense.

But these laments are all well-worn. There is a general election next year and all sorts of pretenders are already lining up to start horse trading in the hopes that they will be the kingmakers in any scenario that calls for a coalition government. 

In Johannesburg, we have seen the political immaturity and lack of commitment to the Constitution which led to neophyte Thapelo Amad becoming mayor. Nothing about him inspires confidence and it is clear he has absolutely no idea what to do with the powers of an executive mayor. 

Gayton McKenzie has declared he’d like to become mayor of Johannesburg. A world-class African city, they once called it. Now it lurches from crisis to crisis, filthy and unsafe. 

In Mangaung and Tshwane, coalitions have led to instability and court battles, while cities and towns face ruin. Like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, the same can be said of those in South Africa entrusted with power: 

“They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

And so we sit with the mess wrought by recklessness, greed, corruption and our own failure to see the signs and hold those in power adequately accountable. Our crises are multiple and will require wisdom, not power-mongering, and a mature attitude towards power and honouring the sacred bond between the people and those who govern.

The next election will in all likelihood bring further instability, though perhaps it sets the stage for fundamental and real change in 2029 – or a complete unravelling. The ANC Veterans’ League spoke at the weekend of a grand coalition, and the DA is canvassing its “moonshot” pact.

The only certainty in this unforgiving political moment is uncertainty.

It bears repeating that we have to keep faith in the fundamentals of our democracy in the meantime because, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we will be called upon to choose between democracy and its destructive populist alternatives. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Glyn Silberman says:

    Well said, nothing to add to that!

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    As always, Judith, the unvarnished truth. Lost on our leaders, however, a clique of self serving, stupid, spectacularly incompetent nobodys living the life of Riley on whatever tax and gratifications can still be milked from the people and institutions of this country.

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