/ 14 April 2023

Thabo Bester’s escape shows how privatising harms crime control

Thabo Bester6
Thabo Bester escaped from his prison cell — by faking his death in the form of a mysterious burnt corpse specially brought in for the purpose. Photo: Supplied

Thabo Bester escaped from his prison cell — by faking his death in the form of a mysterious burnt corpse specially brought in for the purpose — in the privately-run Mangaung maximum security prison in Bloemfontein in May last year. Although Bester has been returned to the country, it raises interesting questions about the negative effect of globalisation on the domestic management of crime. 

From a criminological perspective, it also interrogates the extent to which the uncritical importation of penal hardware (such as the privatisation of prisons) from the centre (developed countries) to the periphery (the Third World), is advisable. 

To illustrate, I am of the view that the rationale for the privatisation drive regarding prisons, not only in this country, but worldwide, is closely linked to two global developments. The first is a growing international trend to punitively manage so-called “surplus populations” of the unemployed, homeless and hopeless by way of incarceration, which has succeeded in locking in the profit motive.  

Robert Weiss, a comparative criminologist, argued presciently almost 25 years ago that, “Declining liberality and growing intolerance is [sic] unmistakably the most outstanding feature of world penal systems and this repressive policy derives from a common overarching reality: prisons throughout the world are expected to manage a rapidly increasing ‘surplus population’.”

The second trend concerns how these “surplus populations” are managed. This is done by way of an American animal known as the “prison-industrial complex” (abbreviated to PIC) and is another feasible reason for both prison expansion and privatisation. This PIC is crisply defined as prison expansion for monetary gain without any actual need.

While a person with the political stature of Raymond Suttner argues, with reference to Bester’s escape, that “state institutions […] concerned with public security, are eroding, collapsing and generally dysfunctional. The media conferences that officials have held after these events have reinforced the view of incompetence, but also a complete lack of connection with the sentiments and fears that people legitimately have about this escape.”

Suttner’s point is well conceived, but at the tail end of late capitalism, I would suggest that the government’s incompetence is tied in, at least in part, with its complicity to the agenda of Big Business. Note, for example, that G4S’s (a multinational company managing prisons all over the world) 25-year contract to run Mangaung was entered into in 2000. Even though it was meant to expire in 2026, the department of correctional services has now retaken control of the prison. 

This date (2000, the date for the signing of G4S’s contract) would mean that my previous calculations on the timing of the emergence of the PIC in South Africa was wrong. In a scholarly paper, following up on a clue provided by the famous prison abolitionist, Angela Davis, I suggested that the date was May 2002 “[i]f we assume that the first documented evidence of the presence of PIC on South African soil appeared […] with the inauguration of the Ebongweni-supermax prison in Kokstad”. This phenomenon “has indeed skewed the picture of crime and re-offending” and managed to get a foothold in South Africa.

The Bester breakout also beautifully illustrates the fact that most powerful criminals, such as Bester (and the Guptas?), are simply beyond the reach of criminal law. Consider, for example, the government-backed cybercriminals entrenched in countries such as North Korea, Russia, China and especially the US. Only a carefully tailored security culture embedded in corporations in general can prevent the devastation of cyberattacks, because there is little hope of successfully prosecuting transnational crime of this sort. 

Bester and his girlfriend were arrested in Tanzania over the Easter weekend and their testimony in South Africa is eagerly awaited. However, as the debacles regarding the extraditions for the Bushiri couple (from Malawi) and the Gupta brothers (from the United Arab Emirates) show, the management of these requests have not inspired a great deal of trust in the South African government’s ability to deliver on justice for powerful criminals. 

An infamous example of the latter is this country (notably KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng) going up in flames after (an opportunistic) Msholozi’s arrest following the constitutional court’s ruling which sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to a short spell of incarceration for contempt of court. 

In South Africa, prison privatisation is not a growing trend, although the practice of making money from punishment has grown in other ways. The two private prisons in South Africa, Mangaung in Bloemfontein and Kutama Sinthumule in Louis Trichardt, Limpopo, cost the South African government an eye-watering R1 billion a year.

In a piece for The Conversation, I asked investigative journalist Ruth Hopkins, author of the book The Misery Merchants (2020), for her take on the private company that ran Mangaung maximum security prison in relation to Bester’s escape. She confirmed that the so-called “EST (Emergency Security Team), known as the Ninjas, used their electrified shields as a torture instrument and regularly electroshocked prisoners for minor transgressions, such as complaining about the quality of food or the lack of blankets”, and that “the number of suspicious deaths in Mangaung prison” were extremely concerning issues.

For context, it appears plausible that the phenomenon of the privatisation of prisons in South Africa, in particular, even though happening globally, is a relic of state capture during the Zuma-years. What comes to mind, in a corollary fashion, is the Bosasa-correctional services tender and supply-chain scandal, which lasted for at least a decade, even after the Special Investigating Unit brought out a damning report in 2009 against Bosasa’s allegedly corrupt dealings with the department. 

One is tempted to ask, as did Davis, whether this money could not have been spent in a better way to allow people to live healthier, more constructive lives, instead. Road maintenance, better healthcare, education and job creation are all feasible alternatives to spending money on incarceration, especially in the context of the PIC. Davis is the author of Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), which is freely available on the internet as an audiobook.

The public would be well within their rights to question the issue of prison expansion when the motive driving such commercial incentives is not primarily public safety but rather the deep pockets of government officials — the Bosasa and Bester cases are good examples. This includes the dubious agendas of Big Business with whom these government officials are in cahoots. 

We should also be vigilant about the government’s tendency to solve social problems (homelessness, unemployment) by way of incarceration, which should not be entertained.