/ 5 May 2023

International pressure on G4S after Thabo Bester escape

Thabo Bester2
The escape of a convicted criminal of Bester's profile should serve as a wake-up call, urging us to address systemic weaknesses and demand accountability from those responsible for maintaining the safety and well-being of our communities. (Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The escape of convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester from the G4S-managed Mangaung Correctional Centre has brought G4S under an international spotlight, with a Canadian pension fund manager under pressure to pull its investment in the holding company of the private prison operator. 

One of the shareholders in G4S, through its US-based holding company Allied Universal, is Canadian pension fund manager Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. 

According to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, the Bester escape has prompted questions about the investment by the Caisse, which manages the retirement funds of public sector employees in Canada.

Some fund managers say the Caisse should not be invested in the security sector anyway but others, wrote The Globe and Mail, say it should use its clout to push the holding company to clean up G4S.

Questioned about the investment in Allied (and hence G4S) following the Bester revelations, a Caisse spokesperson said that it is following the situation in South Africa closely and takes any human rights allegations “very seriously”.

The department of correctional services (DCS) has issued a termination notice to G4S’s empowerment partner, Bloemfontein Correctional Services company, and wants to take over the prison within 90 days.

During parliamentary hearings on Bester’s escape in April, G4S was accused by the correctional services department and the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) of failing to fully cooperate during the investigations and misleading parliament. Throughout the investigations and even after GroundUp published compelling evidence that Bester had escaped, G4S maintained that Bester had died in his cell.

In March, after news broke of Bester’s escape, the correctional services department appointed a temporary manager at Mangaung on the grounds that G4S had lost control of the prison.

Four former G4S employees are currently facing charges of aiding Bester’s escape from the prison on 3 May 2022. Bester faked his death in a cell fire, leaving behind, according to police, the burned body of Bloemfontein resident Katlego Bereng.

What is G4S?

G4S, a multinational security company based in London, operates private prisons around the world. It is listed on the London Stock Exchange and in Copenhagen. G4S says it is active in about 100 countries and has more than 585 000 employees, including 10 000 in South Africa.

The company is known in South Africa for its private security services and cash-in-transit vehicles.

South Africa has two private prisons. In the late 1990s, private prisons were seen as a solution to some of the operational challenges faced by the correctional services department. Contracts were awarded and the prisons were to be handed over to the government after 25 years.

The Mangaung maximum prison, opened in 2001, is operated and partly owned by G4S through a South African subsidiary. The contract was due to end in 2026.

Bester’s escape is not the first controversy at the prison. In 2013, the correctional services department placed the prison under administration after weeks of unrest during which a guard was taken hostage by prisoners who were protesting abusive treatment by officials.

In August 2014, G4S’s control of the prison was restored, and the department said it was “satisfied that the issues that led to our takeover of the Mangaung Correctional Centre have been resolved”.

But further news reports and a documentary have highlighted a criminal culture among prison management and officials, in particular regarding the abusive treatment of inmates.

A sketchy global track record

The Globe and Mail reported that G4S sold its youth detention business after the BBC broadcast footage in 2016 of inmates at a young offenders institution in the United Kingdom being abused by G4S staff.

At another G4S prison in the UK, the government terminated G4S’s contract after finding that prisoners had taken control of the prison and G4S staff were locking themselves in offices to protect themselves from prisoners.

Pension funds in Norway and New York have sold shares in G4S in recent years, The Globe and Mail reported, citing the Norwegian government pension fund manager as saying there was an “unacceptable risk” that G4S was responsible for “serious or systematic human rights violations”.

Media organisation Private Security Network has also published reports on allegations of human rights abuses at G4S’s prison facilities around the world.

G4S response

In response to questions from GroundUp, G4S referred us to a press release, in which “a South Africa spokesperson” said the company had already decided in 2019 that it would no longer invest in correctional services in South Africa.

The spokesperson said G4S would “continue to cooperate with BCC and DCS” and would “seek to agree an orderly transition of services” when the Mangaung contract came to an end.

This article was first published by GroundUp.