Home Opinion and Features Thabo Bester’s escape exposes corruption in South African correctional system

Thabo Bester’s escape exposes corruption in South African correctional system

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OPINION: We have known for years that, like many government entities, South Africa’s correctional system has not been untainted by the stain of corruption. Convicts and those awaiting trial often operate their criminal enterprises from behind bars, writes Quinton Mtyala.

Thabo Bester. File Picture: Patrick Louw/African News Agency (ANA)

Until the GroundUp news agency broke the news that the “Facebook Rapist”, Thabo Bester, 35, had been spotted at a Woolworths check-out in Sandton, most of us had long forgotten about him.

Such is the frequency of horrific crimes in South Africa that a convicted murderer and rapist, sentenced more than 10 years ago to life in prison, can be easily erased from memory.

By all accounts, Bester’s upbringing was one that was marked with trauma and abuse. He was abandoned by his mother and raised by an alcoholic grandmother whose death orphaned him, and he experienced sexual abuse at the hands of men who exploited his vulnerable state.

His earliest brush with the law was at 17, when most of his peers would have been stressed about matric exams and life after high school. But for Bester, as he explained in the Durban Magistrate’s Court in mitigation of sentence after his rape conviction, he had turned to crime as a means to an end.

Since confirmation just over a week ago that Bester had indeed faked his own death and pulled off an audacious escape from a high-security prison, South Africans have been glued to newspapers and the internet for the latest news.

Meanwhile, we have read about how Bester managed to run a company from behind bars. In one of the most sensational episodes, Bester scammed Joburg’s glitterati into attending a spectacular launch event for his company, making them sing “Happy Birthday” to him while he was dressed in a suit on a video call from his prison cell but supposedly in “New York”.

Until Bester, with his alleged accomplice Dr Nandipha Magudumana, appear in court, we won’t know the exact details of his escape from the privately-managed Mangaung Correctional Centre in Bloemfontein and those who aided him.

Thabo Bester and Dr Nandipha Magudumana. Picture: Se-Anne Rall

We have known for years that, like many government entities, South Africa’s correctional system has not been untainted by the stain of corruption. Convicts and those awaiting trial often operate their criminal enterprises from behind bars.

Confirmation of Bester’s escape has not just embarrassed the South African state, but also raised questions about how numerous red flags regarding his “death” were either missed or ignored by those in authority.

From officials at G4S, the multinational security company contracted to manage the prison, to court officials who granted an interdict for the release of a corpse that was subsequently cremated without any documentary proof that Bester and Magudumana were indeed married.

To this day, we still do not know the identity of the man whose corpse was burnt beyond recognition in Cell 35 at the private prison on May 3 last year. What is known is that he was not a prisoner and that his corpse was smuggled into the prison through an elaborate operation that would have required many co-conspirators.

Knowing parliamentarians, when G4S appears in front of the portfolio committee on correctional services, there will be a lot of grandstanding, which comes with the glare of media attention.

Considering how G4S has managed to evade questions since news of Bester’s escape was confirmed, we should not expect anything concrete to come from the committee as the company seeks to avoid civil and criminal liability.

Until then, we will have to wait until Bester and Magudumana are returned from Tanzania and make their appearance in court.

* Quinton Mtyala is the assistant editor of the Cape Argus newspaper.

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