/ 30 March 2023

Fugitive Thabo Bester escaped with inside help – correctional services

Makgothi Thobakgale
Correctional Services commissioner Makgothi Thobakgale. (DCS)

The escape of convicted murderer and rapist Thabo Bester from the privately managed Mangaung Prison in Bloemfontein was “well calculated, organised” and there was clear evidence of inside assistance, said correctional services commissioner Makgothi Thobakgale.

“Findings of an investigation report clearly revealed that Thabo Bester was assisted to escape from lawful custody on 3 May, 2022,” he told a media briefing on Thursday morning.

As a result of the escape, and Bester being on the run as a consequence, the department will immediately take over the management of the prison, he said, adding that this was a “necessary remedy following this embarrassing incident, which has undermined the authority of the state”.  

“The findings of the report into the escape pointed to the fact that the director of Mangaung prison had lost effective control of the facility.”

Thobakgale said the investigation into the escape had not been managed properly, necessitating the suspension of three prison officials — the director of contract management and the department’s controller and deputy controller.

The conduct of other officials was also being scrutinised.

He said that, in accordance with the Correctional Services Act, a temporary manager had been appointed to perform the functions of the director with immediate effect.  

The suspended officials had failed to “oversee and manage” the high-tech prison’s contractor — multinational private security company G4S, said Thobakgale. G4S had been told that the department would be taking control of the prison.

He also said G4S had still not conceded that Bester escaped from the prison, instead maintaining that he died in his cell. This was despite “overwhelming scientific evidence” to the contrary.

The department was seeking legal advice about the contract it had with G4S, Thobakgale   said, adding that it would not be renewed in 2026.

Bester escaped from the maximum security prison last year in an elaborate ploy that including faking suicide by self-immolation. But DNA tests have now confirmed that the charred remains in his cell were not his.

The manner of death of the corpse is yet to be officially revealed, although GroundUp reported in January that according to a leaked report, death was the result of murder, not suicide. Death took place before thefire that engulfed Bester’s mattress and cell, according to the report.  

Known as the “Facebook rapist”, Bester was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for rape and murder. While in prison he ran several business scams, allegedly with the knowledge and assistance of his partner, medical doctor Nandipha Magudumana, which defrauded unsuspecting “clients” of millions of rands.

Thobakgale said it was “disturbing” that a private vehicle had been allowed to enter the maximum security prison without a gate pass on the day of the escape. The vehicle was possibly carrying the corpse that was placed in Bester’s cell and burned beyond recognition.

“This talks to a facility that has compromised its security systems beyond any reasonable doubt,” he said.

Security cameras had been tampered with, he added, which pointed to a failed monitoring system and deliberate orchestration to “conceal crucial evidence and [the identities of] individuals who aided Bester to escape”.

A correctional services track and trace team was searching for Bester, he said.