Why we investigated the Thabo Bester story

This was a story that was both immensely interesting and of immense public interest

By Nathan Geffen

14 April 2023

Illustration of Thabo Bester by Lisa Nelson

Thabo Bester’s escape is one of those stories that is both immensely interesting to the public and of immense public interest. It has captured the public imagination because his escape was so audacious and absurd. The love interest with celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana adds to this.

But GroundUp is not known for covering salacious stories, like this Bonnie and Clyde tale. Certainly such stories should be reported. But we have a very specific focus: human rights stories that bigger publications often don’t have the resources to cover.

When we were given information in late October by Justice Edwin Cameron, the Inspecting Judge of Correctional Services (who is also a GroundUp board member, but has no role in our editorial decisions), that something strange had happened on 3 May 2022 in the G4S-run maximum security prison in Mangaung, we did not believe that Bester had escaped. It seemed like the stuff of a farfetched crime novel.

The reason we decided to take the story on was that irrespective of whether the body found burnt in the cell was Bester’s, it appeared to us that the authorities had failed to investigate it properly. Also, if Bester was free, it meant a convicted murderer and rapist was at large.

We published our first article on Thabo Bester on 8 November. We wrote that there were many unanswered questions about Bester’s reported death. In particular: How could a fire start in an isolation cell? What was the cause of death - did the person die before the fire? Whose body was found in the cell?

Notably, we wrote: “At this stage the possibilities are (1) the body is Bester’s and he killed himself by fire; (2) it is Bester and he died in an accidental fire; (3) it is Bester and he died in a fire set by someone else; (4) it is Bester and he was murdered before the fire; or (5) it was not Bester who died, and Bester might have escaped. Possibility 5 is the most unlikely, but without a proper investigation none of these possibilities can be excluded.”

At this stage we did not have the post mortem that had been conducted on the body in the cell, nor did we definitely know that tests showed that the DNA of the body did not match that of the woman claiming to be Bester’s biological mother. G4S, the Department of Correctional Services and the police gave us little or no information.

We had only one reporter, Marecia Damons, working on the story. The article was not widely read. (In fact some readers expressed a lack of sympathy for a prisoner dying in a fire.)

But, after the story was published, people emailed us with some extraordinary claims about Bester, including that he ran a business from prison and that he scammed people after escaping. (Amazingly, we also found a tipoff about Bester’s business in the GroundUp inbox from February 2020; we simply did not have the resources to investigate it then.)

As more information trickled in, we realised we needed at least two reporters on it, and so Daniel Steyn joined Marecia in February. In between investigating Bester they had many other stories to do. They were extensively helped by James Stent and GroundUp’s other editors.

Marecia and Daniel were daily on the phone to sources, questioning them, double-checking their claims, trying to cajole them to obtain additional evidence to support their claims. In movies, journalism can look quite glamorous, but in real-life it is usually grinding. (Incidentally, unsung heroes of this story are the investigators at the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services who analysed hours and hours of CCTV footage to find the few moments at 2:59 am on 3 May showing two people hastily exiting the prison. It is this kind of monotonous, pedantically conducted work that solves mysteries.)

By mid-January the evidence had accumulated that Bester had escaped. But it appeared to us that we still didn’t have quite enough. In fact the other story we were working on, that Bester ran a business from prison, was coming together quicker.

On 20 January we published Murder at Mangaung Prison: Leaked report shows ‘Facebook rapist’ was dead before a fire broke out in his cell. We had obtained a judges’ report which referred to a post-mortem conducted on the body. As the wording of the headline shows, we were still unconvinced that Bester had escaped.

We then asked freelance reporter Chris Gilili to go to the Pretoria High Court to obtain the documents in the court case brought by Nandipha Magudumana to obtain the body. This didn’t prove easy and perhaps there’s a story to be written on the lack of accessibility of court papers. Nevertheless, Chris’s perseverance paid off and we got access to most, not all, the papers.

Perhaps bringing that case was Magudumana’s big error that led to her and Bester being caught, because the court documents were gold and, critically, led to us getting hold of the full post-mortem report. It was then that we realised that the body in the cell was considerably shorter than Bester’s.

Moreover, the report showed that within days of the incident of 3 May, the authorities knew that the person in the cell had been murdered and had died of blunt force trauma, not fire. Yet no further investigation appeared to have been done to ascertain who the person was or who had murdered him. (A leading forensic pathologist helped us understand the post-mortem report properly.)

Two other journalists, Masego Mafata and Kimberly Mutandiro, also deserve mentioning; they traipsed around Johannesburg obtaining bits of vital information for us.

At this point we had enough information to publish our story of 15 March: Did the Facebook rapist die in his cell? Or did he escape from prison?

This story opened the floodgates. That day we received photographic evidence from a member of the public showing Bester and Magudumana shopping a month after Bester’s supposed death in Woolworths in Sandton City. We examined the metadata in the photo and also confirmed with two other people who knew Bester well that it was indeed him. We published the photos on 16 March. From that point we ceased speculating about whether Bester had escaped; it was now pretty much a certainty.

The story erupted into one of the biggest scandals in South African prison history. And that is how an investigation which started for us as a matter of public interest became a story of such huge interest to the public.

Geffen is GroundUp’s editor.