Government knew Thabo Bester had escaped, but did nothing

Authorities dragged their feet investigating the matter, documents tabled before Parliament reveal

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Illustration of Thabo Bester by Lisa Nelson

  • An August 2022 investigation by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) found that Bester likely escaped.
  • The South African Police Services (SAPS) reached the same conclusion by at least October 2022.
  • But a task team to apprehend Bester was only activated on 24 March, after GroundUp exposed Bester’s escape.

During a meeting on 18 October 2022, the South African Police Service (SAPS) told the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) and the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) that rapist and murderer Thabo Bester escaped from Mangaung Correctional Centre, on 3 May 2022.

Six days later, the Inspecting Judge for Correctional Services, Justice Edwin Cameron wrote to Minister of Correctional Services Ronald Lamola:

“There are indications that, with the collusion of G4S employees and others, a fire was staged in the single-cell of one Thabo Bester (the notoriously named so-called ‘Facebook rapist’) and a corpse was smuggled into the cell with the objective of faking inmate Bester’s death and facilitating his escape.”

This is revealed in documents given to the Parliamentary Committee on Correctional Services on Wednesday by G4S, DCS, SAPS, and JICS. G4S is a multinational security company that operates Mangaung Correctional Centre.

Bester was arrested in Tanzania along with his associate Nandipha Magudumana on 7 April, eleven months after his escape. But it appears that efforts to apprehend him only started on 24 March after details of Bester’s escape were uncovered by GroundUp.

Here is a timeline showing how the authorities dragged their feet investigating the Bester saga:

  • 29 April 2022: A vehicle was driven into the facility without a gate pass.
  • 30 April 2022: Thabo Bester was transferred to a single cell, after he applied to do so for his own safety. The application had been approved by G4S but not the DCS controller.
  • 3 May 2022: Thabo Bester is reported dead after a fire breaks out in his cell. It was reported by G4S and DCS as a suicide.
  • 4 May 2022: A post-mortem is conducted on the body found in the cell, revealing that the person was dead before the fire broke out.
  • 5 May 2022: JICS starts investigating the unnatural death of Thabo Bester.
  • 6 May 2022:
    • Nandipha Magudumana collects the body from a Free State morgue and transports it to a Soweto mortuary.
    • SAPS begins investigating a murder after receiving the autopsy report.
  • 13 May 2022: SAPS confiscates the body from Magudumana’s custody.
  • 19 May 2022: Magudumana approaches the Pretoria High Court asking for the body to be returned to her. She claims to be Bester’s customary law wife.
  • 25 May 2022: The SAPS Investigating Officer makes a sworn statement, indicating suspicious circumstances surrounding the fire.
  • 22 June 2022: G4S provides SAPS with information including CCTV footage, visit records, and other details.
  • 1 July 2022: DNA analysis is conducted by SAPS, comparing the body found in the cell to Bester’s mother. The DNA does not match. A sample of Thabo Bester’s actual DNA could not be found in the SAPS DNA database.
  • 10 August 2022: SAPS provides copies of the autopsy report and DNA tests to JICS. JICS finalizes its preliminary report.
  • 11 August 2022: Based on the findings of the report, JICS prepares an office note, recording that Bester did not die in his cell.
  • 15 August 2022: G4S tells JICS that crucial video evidence is missing.
  • 12 October 2022: An inmate writes to the Free State High Court, alleging that Bester escaped from prison with the help of an official. The official is identified as Senohe Matsoara (who appeared in the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court on 11 April 2023). Two judges are sent to investigate the inmate’s allegations.
  • 18 October 2022: A meeting takes place between JICS, DCS, and SAPS.
    • SAPS says that there is reason to believe Bester faked his death and escaped.
    • DCS does not hand over its report.
    • SAPS asks JICS to help it get the support of the Hawks.
  • 19 October 2022: JICS conducts interviews with G4S officials and inmates.
  • 24 October 2022: GroundUp receives information that calls into question the official explanation of what happened to Bester. GroundUp starts its investigation.
  • 26 October 2022: Justice Cameron writes to Minister Lamola that Bester likely escaped from prison.
  • 4 November 2022: Justice Cameron implores Free State DCS Regional Commissioner Subashini Moodley to expedite the investigation. Moodley declines to discuss the matter without the guidance of Makgothi Thobakgale, the DCS National Commissioner.
  • 8 November 2022: GroundUp publishes “Many mysteries surround the death of ‘Facebook rapist’ Thabo Bester”
  • 10 November 2022: JICS receives G4S’s internal investigation report, with incomplete video footage.
  • 18 November 2022: DCS’s draft investigation report is completed and signed by the investigators.
  • 24 November 2022: The DCS National Commissioner orders the investigation of the involvement of DCS officials.
  • 25 November 2022: The DCS National Commissioner receives a copy of the draft investigation.
  • 30 November 2022: Three DCS officials are suspended - the Director of Contract Management, the Controller at Mangaung Prison, and the Deputy Controller.
  • 21 December 2022: The two judges submit a report based on their inspection. GroundUp gained access to this report on 2 January 2023, after which we published this article.
  • 14 January 2023: DCS Controller opens a case of escape with SAPS Bloemspruit (SAPS had refused to open a case in prior engagements).
  • 2 February 2023: G4S provides JICS with a final investigation report. G4S told the parliamentary committee that the meeting with JICS was the first time they were shown the DNA report.
  • 9 March 2023: During its quarterly meeting with the National Commissioner for DCS, JICS repeats a request for DCS’s internal report. JICS is told that a draft report has been completed and a final report focusing on contractual implications is awaited.
  • 13 March 2023: DCS National Commissioner orders that the final investigation report be delivered to him by 22 March.
  • 15 March 2023: GroundUp publishes “Did the Facebook Rapist die in his cell? Or did he escape from prison?
  • 16 March 2023: GroundUp publishes photographs of Bester and Magudumana shopping in Sandton in June 2022.
  • 22 March 2023: The DCS National Commissioner receives the final investigation report.
  • 24 March 2023: The National Commissioner activates a DCS team to work with SAPS to track, trace and re-arrest Thabo Bester.
  • 25 March 2023: DCS confirms to the public that Bester escaped from prison.
  • 30 March 2023: DCS sends its internal investigation report to JICS.
  • 31 March 2023: G4S provides the outcome of its investigation to DCS.
  • 4 April 2023: Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Correctional Services meets with JICS, DCS, and SAPS. G4S is invited but does not show up, but sends lawyers.
  • 7 April 2023: Bester and Magudumana are arrested in Tanzania.
  • 9 April 2023: Senohe Matsoara, former G4S official who was on duty in Bester’s cell block on the night of the fire, is arrested.
  • 11 April 2023: Matsoara is charged with murder in the Bloemfontein Magistrates’ Court, alongside Magudumana’s father, Zolile Sekeleni.
  • 12 April 2023: G4S appears before the Parliamentary Committee after receiving a summons.
Update on 2023-04-12 11:28

The article was updated to reflect that the 30 April transfer of Bester to a single cell was approved by G4S but not DCS.

Correction on 2023-04-13 10:48

MP Steven Swart's first name was originally misspelt as 'Stephen'. This has been corrected.

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TOPICS:  Thabo Bester prison escape

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