Quote of the week

Mr Zuma is no ordinary litigant. He is the former President of the Republic, who remains a public figure and continues to wield significant political influence, while acting as an example to his supporters… He has a great deal of power to incite others to similarly defy court orders because his actions and any consequences, or lack thereof, are being closely observed by the public. If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law. As this Court noted in Mamabolo, “[n]o one familiar with our history can be unaware of the very special need to preserve the integrity of the rule of law”. Mr Zuma is subject to the laws of the Republic. No person enjoys exclusion or exemption from the sovereignty of our laws… It would be antithetical to the value of accountability if those who once held high office are not bound by the law.

Khampepe j
Secretary of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State v Zuma and Others (CCT 52/21) [2021] ZACC 18
29 March 2023

ANC leadership’s ‘outrage’ over Thabo Bester escape seems a tad manufactured

It was the ANC government that decided in 2000 to enter into a 25-year contract with security company G4S, which manages the prison from which Bester escaped. The contract was concluded despite the company’s international reputation for corruption, racism, abuse, violence and neglect.

Earlier this week, it was reported that the “ANC leadership” claimed to be enraged by the failings of the “security cluster ministers” following the escape of Facebook rapist and murderer Thabo Bester from a private prison in Mangaung. ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula even warned (apparently with a straight face) that the ministers might be fired unless they drastically improved their performance.

This attempt at distancing the ANC and the government it leads from the catastrophic management of the Correctional Services system over a period of more than 20 years by the very same ANC government – a classic case of gaslighting – would have been laughable had it not been deployed successfully in the past by the party to escape accountability for its many failures.

While I do not believe Mbalula’s claim that security cluster ministers may face dismissal if they do not improve their performance (performance clearly never having been the main consideration for the appointment or removal of ministers in the ANC government), the systemic corruption and maladministration within the Department of Correctional Services – that made Bester’s escape possible and led to the attempted cover-up of the incident by the authorities – will not be fixed merely by firing the relevant ministers.

One would have to fire the entire government to even begin to address the problem – something only voters can do.

Let me explain.

It was the ANC government that decided in 2000 to enter into a 25-year contract with security company G4S, which manages the prison from which Bester escaped. The prison commenced operations on 1 July 2001 and its contract only expires on 30 June 2026. As investigative journalist Ruth Hopkins again pointed out this week, the contract was concluded despite the company’s international reputation for corruption, racism, abuse, violence and neglect.

Why did the ANC government enter into a contract with a private company to build and run prisons, when it officially does not support the privatisation of public services?

The obvious answer is that such a contract provided opportunities for corruption for the benefit of politically connected individuals. This suspicion is supported by the work done by Hopkins, who has written extensively about G4S. She argued this week – relying on research done for a book – that the arrangement between G4S and the Department of Correctional Services was a money-making scheme that reminded her of the Bosasa scandal, and pointed out that the contract largely benefited a very powerful consortium of shareholders with connections high up in the ANC.

Despite the many reports of corruption and inhumane treatment in the facility (including an internal report that contains evidence of irregularities in the administration of drugs in the prison – which the department fought for five years to keep secret), the ANC government has not cancelled the contract. Nor could I find any evidence that the department had taken active steps to address the problem.

More generally, it is no secret that the Department of Correctional Services is rife with corruption, intimidation and nepotism and that the department has experienced a total breakdown in the disciplinary system.

Back in 2006, the Jali Commission of Inquiry into the Correctional Services system made damning findings about the culture of lawlessness within the department, and listed a number of examples of attempts by officials to derail the work of the commission and to cover up wrongdoing – including by intimidating and threatening anyone willing to cooperate with the commission.

In this regard the report concludes:

Throughout the Commission’s hearings, some senior officials made a concerted effort to discredit the Commission and its investigators. Investigators were threatened with death. Intimidation and fear is prevalent in the Department of Correctional Services, including Head Office. As a result, even the people holding management positions are not completely committed to the enforcement of the Departmental regulations because they fear reprisal from other members. This is the case even if they are not corrupt because fear drives them to avoid enforcing the rules and regulations.

The report confirmed that corruption and nepotism in the recruitment and promotion of officials within the system was one of the root causes of the rot within the department, which resulted in a situation where “many officials occupy responsible senior positions without having the necessary competence and experience for such positions”.

No wonder, then, that the commission also found that there “appeared to be a poor work ethic prevailing in most of the Management Areas investigated”, and that there was “a general breakdown of organisational standards and norms” within the department.

The commission also concluded that there was “a general culture of violating prisoners’ constitutional rights, with prisoners being deprived of their full visitation rights, being served lunch and supper together at midday and thereafter being locked in their cells often merely because members want to leave work early to attend to their own private affairs”.

(We also know that at the G4S private prison, the abuse extended to the unlawful drugging of unruly inmates – at least those without money to bribe their way out – to pacify them.)

In various interim reports, the commission made shocking findings about the prevalence of illegal drug dealing, medical aid fraud, favouritism in appointments, extortion, unlawful financial transactions with prisoners, fraudulent matric certificates, unlawful visits, theft, assault of prisoners, irregular appointments, irregular transfers and parole transgressions within the department. The various reports also contain a long list of recommendations on how to fix things.

In 2016, 10 years after the final Jali Commission report was published, Prof Lukas Muntingh concluded in an article in the SA Crime Quarterly that while there had been some improvement, the Department of Correctional Services “remains beset by the same problems as those the commission was established to address: overcrowding, corruption, impunity, rights violations and services that do not reach sufficient numbers of prisoners and leave much to be desired with regard to impact”.

Given this overall picture, it is hardly surprising that the Department of Correctional Services only conceded that Thabo Bester had escaped from prison after the evidence uncovered by GroundUp – in a series of astonishing exposés – became so overwhelming that the department could no longer hold up the charade that Bester had died in prison.

In a generous reading, DCS spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo could have been excused for falsely “confirming” on 3 May 2022 that Thabo Bester had died in a fire at the Mangaung prison.

But this position became untenable after 31 May 2022 when – as GroundUp reported earlier this monthpapers filed in the Pretoria High Court revealed that a woman claiming to be Bester’s mother tried to claim the body, but she was refused after her DNA did not match that of the body, and that the cause of death of the body found in Bester’s cell was blunt force injury to the head. The post-mortem report also revealed that the height of the body was 1.45m. In a police mugshot, Bester stands taller, at over 1.7m.

Despite this, Nxumalo continued to claim – most recently on 18 March this year – that Bester had died on 3 May 2022. He also said the department did not have the autopsy report on the body found in the prison cell of convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester.

In a statement issued by the department on 17 March this year, the department also demonstrated contempt for the brave whistle-blowers and journalists who exposed the scandal by complaining about “so-called leaks from unidentified sources” and suggested that “information supplied by these unauthorised sources” was putting undue pressure on the department to confirm or deny these reports.

On 26 March, the National Commissioner of the South African Police Services, General Fannie Masemola, announced that he had ordered the prioritisation of investigations into Bester’s prison escape, but also complained about “the leaking of sensitive and confidential information to media houses” and warned that this “is being looked into by authorities”.

What has been entirely absent from the responses by various government spokespeople and the relevant government ministers, is any explanation of:

  • Why the matter has not been properly investigated up to now;
  • Why the department seemed to have covered up the matter and continued to mislead the public in the face of mounting evidence that its story was untrue;
  • Whether the minister, deputy minister or commissioner had approved the cover-up, or knew about it, and if they did, whether they will be held accountable;
  • Whether the head of the Mangaung prison and other responsible individuals will be held accountable for what happened, and why officials it says were dismissed after the incident were not criminally investigated and charged;
  • Why the department and the police are going after GroundUp and whistle-blowers instead of going after the corrupt officials who made the escape possible, and the senior officials or politicians who were in cahoots with them or may have turned a blind eye;
  • Why the contract with G4S has not been cancelled, and whether this has anything to do with the fact that a powerful consortium of shareholders with connections high up in the ANC allegedly benefit from it; and
  • What steps the Department of Correctional Services and the relevant ministers have taken over the years to root out the problems identified in the Jali Report; why these attempts have not been successful, and what would be done differently in future.

It is good and well that the police are now investigating a case of murder and wrongful escape against Thabo Bester. Hopefully, he will be caught quickly and sent back to prison before he hurts anyone. But even if this happens, those in government who have political and administrative responsibility for the department, and the ANC government as a whole, should not be allowed to avoid accountability for the systemic failures that made the escape possible in the first place.

If the “ANC leadership” was really enraged by the scandal, as Mbalula claims, it could show this by demanding protection for the whistle-blowers who risked their lives to expose this scam, and by holding its deployees in government – whose actions or failure to act contributed to the mess – to account by expelling them from the party, if necessary.

But, as we all know, this will not happen.

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