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Thabo Bester escape exposes corruption in SA criminal justice system

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Picture: AFR – Convicted South African rapist and murderer Thabo Bester looks on while being brought into the Magistrate’s Court in Bloemfontein on April 14, 2023 – A fugitive rapist and murderer who left a burnt corpse in his cell during a jailbreak appeared in a South African court on Friday a day after he was returned after fleeing to Tanzania.

By Mary de Haas

In March the public was astonished to learn that Facebook rapist Thabo Bester, serving a life sentence for murder and rapes, was still alive and living it up in luxury with his lover Dr Nandipha Magudumana. In May 2022 it was announced that Bester had died in a cell fire in the Mangaung Correctional facility. After an autopsy revealed that the body was not that of Bester, and the victim had died of a head injury, a report by the Inspecting Judge of Correctional Services Edwin Cameron had been handed to the Minister of Justice in October 2022. This information was known to police management and through them to the Minister after the autopsy. It is only because of the notoriety and celebrity statuses of the couple that the details of gross corruption and cover up which emerged – which are endemic in our criminal justice system and allow criminals to operate with impunity – are in the public domain. That this macabre drama played out in the Free State, above all exposes the criminality of our state and its Executive: they have covered for the most heinous of crimes – murder and rape – while unleashing their police, colluding with partisan court officials – to hunt down and kill a law-abiding whistleblower, Patricia Mashale, for exposing high levels of police and political corruption.

We are fortunate that this matter was leaked to the media by Inspecting Correctional Services Judge Cameron because no action was forthcoming from the Minister (and there is no independent oversight of policing). After the news of Bester being alive broke, it became obvious that there was no political will to find him. It is now known that he regularly absented himself from prison. Courtesy of SAPS and Home Affairs, he and Magudumana escaped to Tanzania, and were repatriated after their arrest for illegally entering that country. (Bester reportedly has four passports). They and others, including Magudumana’s father and prison staff, are now facing various charges, including fraud and violation of the body.

In contrast to the lack of any attempt to find Bester, scarce SAPS resources are used to hunt Patricia Mashale. Like all policing, SAPS Crime Intelligence is run by the minister, and it has even deployed members from Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal to find her, as they know that she enjoys a great deal of sympathy from decent provincial police members.

There are deep divisions in the ranks of police with problems stemming from its management who owe their positions to Ace Magashule and former acting national commissioner Khomotso Phahlane. Provincial commissioner Baile Motswenyane was hurriedly transferred from the North West after then Independent Police Investigative Directorate head Robert McBride sought a High Court interdict to stop her obstructing investigations into Phahlane, who is now facing a raft of serious charges. While it is known that the investigations of some Free State police members have assisted in exposing the truth, there is credible evidence that others have been part of the cover up. A certain brigadier visited the crime scene in the cell and tampered with it. A climate of fear pervades professional Department of Justice employees, amidst allegations that certain prosecutors, and even magistrates, are colluding with corrupt police. All this has been drawn to the attention of Minister Ronald Lamola and no action has been taken.

Lamola’s mandate covers Correctional Services and research shows that nothing has been done to address the findings, 20 years ago, of the Jali Commission about widespread prison corruption. Interestingly, the commission had commented on the fact that policeman Panganathan “Timmie” Marimuthu, convicted of drug dealing, had never served his prison sentence as he was politically well connected. When Minister Bheki Cele was national commissioner the media reported that Marimuthu and family members were employed by Crime Intelligence. Zondo Commission revelations about Bosasa showed how prisons are political money spinners and the former mayor of Mangaung has a financial stake in the Public/Private Mangaung partnership.

Violations of bodies are widespread, but seldom prosecuted. Magudumana’s access to bodies was illegal since unidentified bodies may only be handed to those claiming them with permission from the medical manager if specific conditions are met. Fingerprints and DNA must be stored before bodies are given a pauper’s burial by the government and cremation is not permitted. In KZN, where even bodies sought by families disappear, forensic mortuary services were rendered dysfunctional by then MEC (now deputy minister) Sibongiseni Dhlomo who gave criminal, unqualified staff carte blanche to run them, and experienced pathologists left. Medical rights group MERAN handed a detailed report to the SA Law Commission four years ago, requesting they be removed from Department of Health control, and an independent inspecting judge be appointed immediately. There has been no response.

The Bester saga is a microcosm of how, starting with our Executive, our criminal justice system has itself become criminalised while it uses taxpayers’ money to try and assassinate a corruption whistleblower. Could the depravity of our government be any clearer?

Mary De Haas is an honorary research associate in the School of Law, UKZN