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Privatisation of Prisons: A damning indictment on govt’s leadership

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Design: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA); Pictures: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA), GCIS Correctional Services officials conduct a raid at Pollsmoor Prison on January 4 as part of a national festive season security operation plan. Following the escape of convicted killer Thabo Bester from the Mangaung private prison, the leadership of Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola (top right) and Correctional Services National Commissioner Makgothi Samuel Thobakgale (bottom right) have been brought into question, says the writer.

By Themba Godi

The story of Thabo Bester sounds so improbable that it could be a fiction thriller. Except that this is no fiction.

It is real and hauntingly painful to the victims whom he duped, robbed, raped and killed. For his heinous crimes, Bester had been sentenced to life and 75 years behind bars, and rightly so.

He was sent to the Mangaung maximum prison in order to guarantee that he serve his sentence fully. Almost a year after Correctional Services informed the country that Bester died in a cell inferno, we now know that the felon is out of the maximum prison and the decomposing corpse found in his cell belongs to someone else.

The sad saga raises questions, not just about corruption within the prison system and the alleged involvement of some political leaders but about what Mangaung prison represents. The Mangaung prison and the Kutama Sinthumule prison in Limpopo are privately run on a 25-year contract with the state.

Their contracts were signed on August 11, 2000 (Kutama, with a capacity of 3024) and July 1, 2001 (Mangaung, with a capacity of 2 928). They were supposed to be the models of how prisons must be run, the future of corrections in the country.

They were, in true neo-colonial style, modelled on the British. The Mangaung prison was to be run by a British outfit called G4S, a visible player on the South African private security scene. The contracts were signed at a time when so-called public-private partnerships were in vogue, the private sector exalted as the epitome of virtue, and the public sector as inefficient, corrupt, wasteful and old-school.

This wasn’t just a South African phenomenon – internationally, capitalist fundamentalism was rampant after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, it didn’t take long for the illusions of an efficient, effective and economic privately run custodial system to be busted.

The experiment has been a failure, even the apostles of privatisation cannot vouch for it. The Thabo Bester saga epitomises a failed, corrupt and expensive system that has not yielded the results privateers had vouched for.

Mangaung and Kutama are far from being models for a future corrections system. It is a truism that the prison system in our country is corrupt, inefficient and shameful. Even the Department of Correctional Services manages itself like the criminals in its custody.

Look at the financial statements in its annual reports to Parliament to fully appreciate the rot. However, from a policy perspective, it can never be justified to give custodial responsibilities of offenders to private companies.

Private companies are in it for profit, their contracts are such that they must milk the state. They always choose profit, at the expense of murder and rape victims. Mangaung and Kutama are corrupt prisons. Crimes are committed by prison guards and those in high positions, and prisoners are tortured, blackmailed and even killed.

Mangaung has been the more notorious one. About a decade ago, the Department of Correctional Services had to take command of the prison when it became clear that its private management had lost control after lengthy periods of riots, stabbings, hostage-taking and strikes in the prison.

There were allegations of the use of anti-psychotic drugs and electro-shocks to control prisoners. The costs associated with the two prisons are insane. Only those serving minority and foreign interests can justify them. The portfolio committee on correctional services observed in 2013 that by the end of the contracts, 2025 and 2026, the projected expenditure would be more than R20 billion.

When juxtaposed against the expenditure on Kimberly Prison then, the amount could have built 18 new prisons. It is an amount that could be used to modernise facilities, train and better equip warders or pay them decent wages in order to decentivise corruption.

Thus, the Thabo Bester case, dramatic and brazen as it is, should not be seen in isolation. It must be seen in the context of a wrong policy choice by the ANC-led government of then-president Thabo Mbeki.

The two prisons have been more expensive to run than the state-run ones. The touted virtues of efficiency and economy were no more than ideological conviction or the usual capitalist propaganda. At one point, the then-minister of correctional services, Sbu Ndebele, admitted that the model didn’t work well.

Even senior departmental officials admitted that the contracts were not well thought through and that outsourcing custodial responsibilities was wrong. The portfolio committee and Scopa, Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts, voiced their unhappiness with the arrangement, from a policy and financial point of view.

I remember vividly that the issue was referred to the Cabinet during then-president Jacob Zuma’s administration, where it was resolved that when the two contracts expired, they would not be renewed and that no other privately run prisons must be built.

As the contracts are nearing their expiry, one sincerely hopes that the government will not renew them, even though there is a privatisation frenzy affecting state-owned entities we never dreamt could be privatised, like Eskom, SAA, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Transnet and Denel.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is an ideologue of private enterprise, we cannot bank on him respecting that decade-old Cabinet decision. The Mangaung and Kutama experiment is a painful lesson on the folly of privatising state duties. We must build a capable state, as envisioned in the National Development Plan.

Themba Godi is former chairperson of the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) and current president of the African People’s Convention