/ 19 April 2023

More staff at G4S’ Mangaung prison knew of Bester’s escape – Popcru

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Xanda Moyo, a Zimbabwean, face charges in connection to the prison break of rapist and murderer Bester. Photo: Supplied

More employees at the Mangaung Correctional Centre appear to have known about Thabo Bester’s planned escape than those already facing criminal or disciplinary charges, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) said.

Meanwhile, police arrested a 51-year-old male security guard who is employed by multinational security company G4S. Brigadier Athlenda Mathe said the arrest took place at the Mangaung prison on Tuesday. 

The suspect is expected to appear in the Bloemfontein magistrate court on Thursday on charges of assisting an inmate to escape from prison and defeating the ends of justice. He joins another G4S employee and three more suspects accused of aiding Bester’s escape in May 2022. 

During a “fact-finding mission” to Mangaung prison, the policing trade union found that many staff members were well aware of Bester’s plan to escape from the maximum security prison “but they were kept in abeyance by majorities”, the union’s president Zizamele Cebekhulu said on Wednesday during a roundtable discussion in Pretoria. 

Bester’s escape from the privately run prison, which is managed by G4S, raised concerns about the state of public-private correctional facilities in South Africa. 

According to Cebekhulu, labour laws at the Mangaung prison are not maintained and “strict rules of looking after prisoners are not adhered to”. 

He said the union had heard accounts of staff being victimised and that “they just kick you outside and dismiss you”.

Cebekhulu did not provide specific examples of victimisation, but referenced a strike by employees outside the prison last year as proof that all was not well at the prison.

Allegations of human rights violations and failure to adhere to labour laws coincide with other international claims against G4S

In South Africa, wrongdoings at the company were highlighted by investigative journalist, Ruth Hopkins in a series of articles published in Mail & Guardian in 2013. She exposed alleged incidents of inmates being forcibly injected with antipsychotic medication, being electroshocked and tortured — with some allegedly succumbing to their injuries.

The British multinational security company 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.

On Wednesday, Popcru argued that G4S “is not interested in rehabilitation, they are interested in making a profit”. Cebekhulu said the union had determined that at Mangaung prison, one guard had to look after 60 inmates. 

He also confirmed reports that Bester had had a “lavish” stay at the facility, including one incident where Bester was allowed to wear a suit on his birthday while engaging with people outside the prison.  

This particular incident was brought to the public’s attention by non-profit news group GroundUp, which reported on 24 March that Bester, under the pseudonym of “Tom Motsepe”, ran a multi-million rand scam event and a fake production company called 21st Century Media. During a glamorous event at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton on 13 June 2018, Bester virtually appeared before the guests dressed in a suit and claiming to be in New York, while he was in fact in prison.

Popcru placed the blame for the debacle “squarely on the shoulders of the [department of correctional services] who had a responsibility of oversight of private prisons, and looking at how laws of this country are being adhered to because this is a foreign company”, Cebekhulu said.

G4S has been operating in South Africa since 2001 and manages the Mangaung and Kutama-Sinthumule correctional centres. 

Last week, the correctional services department told parliament’s portfolio committee on justice that the government had — since its contract commenced with G4S until 2022 — paid the company over R7.7 billion. It cost the state R45 million a month to maintain the contract with G4S. The two private centres have a total of 5 952 inmates, 2 928 of them at Mangaung prison. 

Popcru has previously accused management at the prison of trying to cover up the events leading to Bester’s escape. It 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”.

The trade union, which says the country is “coughing up” a lot of money to maintain public private prisons, called for them to be brought under the control of correctional services.

Cebekhulu confirmed that the trade union planned to address parliament and had also arranged to meet with the department of correctional services.