Where were they? State failure and Thabo Bester

Thabo Bester has been arrested, nearly a year after escaping prison. Should the state be praised for prompt action?

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Minister of Police Bheki Cele and Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola at a press briefing on 13 April 2023. Archive photo: Daniel Steyn

GroundUp published the first story about Thabo Bester’s possible escape from prison on 8 November 2022. Then the bombshell exposé on 15 March 2023, which seemingly confirmed the suspicion that Bester escaped. It sounded far-fetched, but GroundUp’s March 2023 story was seemingly supported by documents that had been in the state’s possession for almost a year.

Then came the follow-up stories. Pictures of Bester, taken in public; stories about a scam business run from inside a maximum-security prison; information of public businesses run from a rented mansion in Hyde Park. It kept getting more bizarre. And still the state was nowhere.

A few facts are indisputable: On Tuesday, 3 May 2022, the South African Police Service (SAPS) was called to a scene in Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC) where a body was found burnt in a cell. The call indicated that it was a suspected suicide. The body was taken to the state mortuary, where, on the morning of 4 May 2022, state pathologist, Dr Jacobus Fouche, performed the autopsy and concluded that the deceased died from blunt force trauma and that the body was burnt post-mortem. Someone was murdered and then burnt. Accordingly, as early as 4 May 2022, SAPS knew that a murder had occurred in the prison. A murder docket was opened. What happened (or did not happen) next is worth analysing.

An investigating officer of even average ability would have known from the post-mortem report that the post-mortem burning of the body implicated either another prisoner, or a prison official as perpetrator. Moreover, the report measured the murder victim at 145cm tall and weighing 50.2 kg. Compared to Thabo Bester’s approximate 175 cm, this was a small victim.

By 4 May 2022, the state had sufficient information to, at the very least, suspect that the victim was not Bester, and that Bester was missing. Therefore, suspicion that several serious crimes were committed.

And then? Nothing.

Where were the authorities from May 2022 to March 2023? This matter deserved immediate investigation and immediate action. There are two state departments directly implicated: the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) – with a budget of R25.5-billion; and SAPS – with a budget of R100.5-billion.

For ten months the state seemingly sat on the facts, not using their enormous collective might and resources, until a small, non-profit company published the embarrassing truth. During this time Bester was hiding in plain sight, committing further crimes. Do not romanticise Bester and his wife (or girlfriend) as a Clyde and Bonnie or the conduct as an escape from Alcatraz. They are low-life dangerous criminals, who openly played the fool with the authorities. It should never have been allowed.

There are two state failures that stand exposed by the Bester saga. The first is the fact that he was allowed to escape. Yes, escapes happen and, yes, they happen with inside assistance. But allowing Thabo Bester to conduct online scams from prison and likely smuggle a body into prison to escape are inexcusable. There was clearly no control at the prison, and G4S and DCS must answer. Neither can escape culpability.

Second is SAPS. We expect our police force to act when dangerous prisoners escape. We expect them to warn the public that a convicted serial rapist and murderer is on the loose. We expect SAPS to be able to solve the murder of a person whose body was burnt in a closed prison environment, where everyone is supposed to be accounted for, promptly. These are just the basic things we expect. We do not expect Tommy Lee Jones and a team of US Marshals to ride into town to catch themselves a fugitive. We just expect some action.

GroundUp is a small, community focussed publication. It is a non-profit organisation that relies on donations to produce and publish news reports and opinions. Its annual budget is about 0.007% of the SAPS budget. GroundUp does not have a large investigative division, but it relies on good sources and good journalism to research articles. Why did it require this small member of the fourth estate before the state swung into action?

At best for SAPS and DCS, there has been extreme incompetence and dereliction of duty. It is an embarrassment that is not cured by the actions and achievements since March 2023. A deliberate cover-up would, bizarrely, almost be a relief.

The author is an attorney who specialises in media law. He is also GroundUp’s lawyer.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Policing Thabo Bester prison escape

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