/ 1 April 2023

Thabo Bester escape a fraction of the rot at G4S-run private jail

On Thursday, correctional services commissioner Makgothi Thobakgale said the findings of an investigation report “clearly revealed” Thabo Bester was assisted in his escape from custody on 3 May. Photo: Supplied

The great escape of convicted murderer and rapist Thabo Bester from the Mangaung Correctional Centre in the Free State is just a fraction of the bigger problem of systemic wrongdoing by the maximum security prison’s operator, global security company G4S. 

On Thursday, correctional services commissioner Makgothi Thobakgale said the findings of an investigation report “clearly revealed” Bester was assisted in his escape from custody on 3 May. He told a media briefing that the escape was “well calculated, organised” and there was evidence of inside assistance.

The prison operator, British multinational security company G4S, had costs related to lawsuits and fines amounting to more than R3.5 billion in 2018. It has been embroiled in numerous allegations of human rights violations, employee abuse, corruption and tax evasion. 

Despite the global controversy, G4S continues to boast about its status as the world’s largest private security service provider, with a global workforce of nearly 800 000 people.

After being bought by American security firm Allied Universal in 2021, G4S earned nearly $20 billion. By the end of 2019, South Africa, the UK and Australia made up 7% of the company’s total revenue. 

In South Africa, investigative journalist Ruth Hopkins — who reported on G4S from 2012 to 2020 — describes the company as “one of the best-kept secrets” in the country. 

In a 2021 New Frame article, Hopkins wrote: “It is one of the country’s biggest private employers with about 15 000 people on its payroll, running a prison and providing cash-in-transit as well as banking, ATM and cash-processing services.”

G4S has been operating in the country since 2000. 

The department of correctional services and G4S South Africa confirmed the security company does not disclose its activities at detention centres in South Africa because of “contractual restrictions”.  

Hopkins went to Mangaung Prison in 2012 as part of the Wits Justice Project. After interviewing about 100 inmates, Hopkins, through a  series of articles in the Mail & Guardian in 2013, exposed alleged incidents of inmates being forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication, electroshocked and tortured — and some allegedly succumbed to their injuries.

An investigation by the correctional services department would later confirm the irregularities at the prison. Hopkins only got the final investigation report in 2020 after taking the department to court. 

According to the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) the matters that were under investigation in 2013 “have improved”. The JICS “has been monitoring” the prison, its spokesperson Emerantia Cupido told M&G.   

Hopkins told the M&G this week that the correctional services department was “complicit and covers up for the company”.

“If you look at that investigation report, it flags irregularities, there is actually evidence of irregularities. But [the department] has taken no action. I think clearly because they’re filling their pockets,” she said, recalling conversations with officials who told her bribes had been paid and how widespread corruption was.

G4S made the headlines this week after the escape of Bester, called the “Facebook rapist”, from Mangaung prison was confirmed by the correctional services department on Saturday — almost a year after a burned body believed to be his was found in his cell on 3 May. 

According to a spokesperson for G4S Correction Services (South Africa), the police were alerted about several concerns regarding the fire on 5 May. 

“Three employees [at Mangaung prison] were suspended shortly after the incident. These employees were subsequently dismissed in September 2022, December 2022 and January 2023, respectively, for matters relating to their conduct on the evening of 3 May,” the spokesperson said.

After a GroundUp  investigation published on 15 March, questions regarding the possible escape and whereabouts of Bester started to circulate. Correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo confirmed reports about a week later, saying the body found in the cell was not that of Bester and that he had indeed escaped from prison. 

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union accused the management of Mangaung prison of trying to cover up the events leading to Bester’s escape. The civil group also slammed correctional services for outsourcing state functions to foreign-owned companies “whose sole preoccupation is profit maximisation as opposed to the core mandate of rehabilitating inmates”. 

But while Bester’s escape has rocked South Africa, for G4S it might be water off a duck’s back.

“Look at the company as a whole,” said Hopkins. “It is a ruthless capitalist company. They are earning a profit off human misery and they do that ruthlessly all over the world. I mean, they have a trail of destruction following them.” 

The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) probed the financial aspects of 

G4S on behalf of the Private Security Network, a transnational network 

of journalists in 20 countries investigating the private security industry.

SOMO’s final report, published in 2020, showed G4S to be visibly profit-driven, lacking ethical conduct — or the regulation thereof — and to be growing its global footprint without resistance. 

Ashley Almanza, chief executive of G4S since 2013, is South African. While the company’s net profits fell to £88 million in 2018, Almanza earned a comfortable £2.9 million. Its 2018 annual report shows that the average wage for G4S employees was £9 390, roughly R200 000 in today’s money. 

From G4S’s annual reports, SOMO found that the company uses most of its profits to pay dividends to shareholders. 

As of March 2020, 10 shareholders owned 56% of the company. Dividend payments increased from £101 million in 2009 to £150 million in 2018, “and continuing even in the years when the company’s net income after tax was less than the sum of dividend payments”, reads the report. 

“To maintain such payments, the company either financed them from its reserves or took on debt. From 2009 to 2018, G4S’s total dividend payments were almost the same as the company’s net profits after taxes, suggesting that G4S used all its profits to fund dividend payments to shareholders.” 

Almanza was a non-executive director at the British multinational asset management company  Schroder Investment Management from 2011 to 2016, a company which, in 2020, was G4S’s sixth-largest shareholder. 

Meanwhile, G4S employees in Kenya went on strike two years ago over low pay and inhumane working conditions. Allegations of bribes and violence against detainees surfaced against G4S employees, dating back to 2011. In 2020, employees in India accused G4S of exploitation, long working hours and poor living conditions. 

Allegations of human rights violations and staff abuse have been reported in several other places, including Malawi, Niger Delta, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. 

In 2018, the British government took back control of Birmingham Prison which had been managed by G4S since 2011. The 15-year contract was ended prematurely after an increase in violence, substance abuse and deaths over a short period of time.

However, G4S continued to pocket government contracts despite the serious allegations against it. In 2019, the UK government contracts with G4S were valued at a significant £4.7 billion. 

Hopkins wrote in 2021 that a month after G4S was fined £44 million for defrauding the British government by listing about 3 000 “phantom” inmates under its contract to provide electronic monitoring to prisoners, the company received a massive contract worth £300 million to run a UK prison in 2020. 

Meanwhile, in line with the global uptick in security spending, G4S projected 4% to 6% growth between 2017 and 2027. 

The G4S international press office did not respond to an M&G inquiry. 

On Thursday, correctional services commissioner Thobakgale announced the immediate takeover of the management of the Mangaung prison.

The contract between correctional services and G4S officially expires in 2026. The department indicated earlier in the week that it had no intention of extending it.