/ 8 August 2023

One prisoner dies in fire at Limpopo prison

Ed 443597
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola. (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images and Phill Magakoe/ Gallo Images)

One prisoner died and 18 were injured in a fire started by mutinous inmates in the Katuma Sinthumule prison in Makhado in Limpopo, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola said on Tuesday. 

The fire was started on Monday afternoon at about 4pm and destroyed “a significant portion of the facility”. 

This meant that all 3 024 inmates were being transferred to other prisons around the country, Lamola said, adding that this process could take up to two weeks to complete.

“There are some that are already relocated. As we speak they are on their way to various centres across the country, but you would understand that a huge number of 3 024 can’t be transported immediately,” he said.

“It is going to be an operation that takes some time, maybe up until Friday, or taking two weeks or so. It is a live situation.”

No inmates escaped, Lamola stressed.

“All of them are accounted for. All efforts were made to ensure no one escaped and that is the intention  … to make sure no one escapes until they are allocated to wherever they are going.”

The prisoner died in hospital. He was serving a 33-year sentence for murder, the minister said, adding that all inmates at the maximum security facility were serving lengthy sentences. 

Lamola said the cooperation of inmates had contributed to containing a fraught situation.

He commended the fire services, saying they arrived promptly from several surrounding municipalities but had had to contend with the fact that prisoners were still mutineering.

“They did commendable work under the circumstances,” Lamola said.

“They could not prevent the burning of the entire building unfortunately because it was a live situation … it was still a situation where they could not with ease come in and extinguish the fire. Here there were negotiations,” he said.

“There were interventions from our own officials to stabilise the situation so that the fire could be put out.”

National correctional services commissioner Makgothi Samuel Thobakgale confirmed that inmates had submitted a memorandum of grievances to prison management on 27 July, which were mainly complaints about the handling of transfer requests.

Thobakgale said the prisoners had demanded that their grievances be addressed by 14 August, “so this incident took place before that”.

He said the department received the memorandum on 2 August and two days later the regional commissioner proposed that a team be assembled to deal with it.

“I approved that team on the same day. The allegations in the main have to do with the treatment of offenders, that is what we have to investigate, but the main demand or complaint was about transfers.” 

Lamola said it was “disheartening” that grievances led to such a level of destruction and the loss of life.

“The instigators have been identified, and an investigation will be launched urgently.”

The prison is operated by a private company, South African Custodial Management, in partnership with the government.

Last year, convicted murderer and rapist Thabo Bester escaped from the privately managed Mangaung Prison in Bloemfontein after faking his suicide by self-immolation. DNA tests later confirmed that the charred remains in his cell were not his. Bester was apprehended in Tanzania earlier this year.