Bester escape: G4S found wanting and fails to cover itself in glory
THE representatives of the company at the centre of the the grand escape of convicted murderer and rapist Thabo Bester from the Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC, G4S, have been called out for trying to pin the scandal on the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the Department of Correctional Service (DCS).
In an 8-hour grilling, G4S regional commercial director Cobus Groenewoud, Audit and Risk director Gert Beyleveld and MCC director Joseph Mnyanti barely had answers for the parliamentary committee on Justice and Correctional Service. G4S is managing the MCC on behalf of the DCS as part of a 25-year public-private partnership contract which started in 2001.
The three prison officials were at pains to explain how Bester was moved from his communal cell to Cell 35, a single cell, in a unit called Broadway at MCC.”The first finding was that the CCTV system was fully operational, except for the cameras covering the Broadway Unit, where inmate Bester was held, and the administrative building.”The video cameras for these two buildings function off the same power circuit, and it came to our attention that power to that circuit had failed during the period 19:38 on the evening of 2 May and 04:11 on the morning of 3 May. Other than this failure, there were no power interruptions recorded at MCC during this time,” explained Groenewoud. He blamed their officials for failing to follow the incident reporting procedures. “Two central control room officials failed to follow clearly established MCC policies and procedures. They did not monitor or report events in a timely manner. That was another notable finding,” he said.
Groenewoud said the night supervisor, Sehone Motsoara, also failed to explain his movements on the night the fire broke out in Cell 35. “The onsight night duty supervisor who was on duty from the evening of the 2nd of May to the morning of the 3rd of May also failed to follow clear and well-established MCC procedure.
“This person failed to complete his inspection rounds, according to policy. This individual failed to attend to incidents on time. This individual directed staff to insignificant tasks. He ignored the call to attend a report of smoke in Broadway Cell 35 where inmate Bester was housed,” he said.
Groenewoud said the only available footage from their CCTV cameras showed faint images of two individuals running. “The footage is distant because the cameras that were better placed were not working. We were unable to identify whether these two individuals were G4S staff members, Mangaung prison officials or whether they were inmates. We were unable to determine that.
“We shared information with the DCS, SAPS and the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Service (JICS). This information was shared from as early as May 2022 to October 2022 to support them in their various investigations. “Three employees were suspended shortly after the incident, on the 6th of May, 2022. It ultimately led to the dismissal of Mr Senohe Matsoara on the 29th of September 2022. He was the onsight night supervisor on that night. He was also arrested last week,” he said.
Motsoara has since been dismissed. He appeared at the Bloemfontein Magistrate Court on Tuesday on charges of murder alongside Zolile Cornelius Sekeleni, the father of Bester’s partner Dr Nandipha Magudumana. They duo is accused of murdering an unknown person in Bloemfontein on March 3 last year. According to Groenewoud, the police did not give any hint that they were investigating a possible escape.
“SAPS gave no indication that anything other than a suicide appeared to be at play. On the morning of the 4th of May, staff in our administrative block noticed a smell of petrol coming from the personal belongings of inmate Bester that had been placed in that block for safe-keeping to later be handed to his next of kin.
“We immediately advised SAPS of this issue. They attended the MCC through their forensic unit the next day. They concurred with us that there were traces of an accelerant present. On the 8th of May, SAPS returned to MCC and they collected all the deceased’s possessions, and they also again confirmed the presence of this accelerant,” he said.Groenewoud added that G4S had cooperated with authorities at every turn.
“On the 9th of May our MCC administrative staff handed to SAPS the state mortuary notification of death form that was dated the 6th May 2022. On the 22nd of June on the request of SAPS we handed the particulars and the duty list of members who were on duty from 7:30 the evening of 2 May until 7:30 on the morning of the 3rd of May.
“We provided to them all available footage. We provided records of all visits to inmate Bester and we also provided details of inmate Bester’s belongings that we handed to the next of kin. Details of the individuals who reported inmate Bester’s death to the next of kin were also handed to SAPS. Finally, we gave them the MCC report of what transpired,” he said.
The committee heard that it was only this year that G4S learned about Bester’s escape.
“There was a meeting on the 2nd of February 2023, at which JICS mentioned to MCC that they had suspicions that inmate Bester had escaped. JICS also showed us a copy of the postmortem report and the DNA analysis. This was a DNA analysis report that was issued on the 1st of July 2022. We were given access to that report on the 2nd of February 2023.
“On the 7th of February there was a follow-up meeting between MCC and JICS at the Bloemfontein offices at JICS, at which the SAPS was not present. On the 8th of March, we received the JICS interim report.
“Neither G4S nor the MCC has made any finding regarding the identity of the body as this is the sole responsibility of the authorities. Without a summons we would have broken the law by sharing this information with you today,” said Groenewoud.
Committee member Anthea Ramoloneng rejected the G4S presentation. She said it appeared that the security company was trying to exonerate itself while contradicting itself on time frames.
“They made mention that the fire broke at 4 o’clock in the morning, and based on our visit when we went there and the footage that we saw, it says the fire broke at 2:30am. At 2:59 it was reported.
“Exactly at 2:30am, the two gentlemen that you spoke of, were seen running towards that main block. Which one is it?” Ramolobeng asked. G4S apologised for the contradicting time frames.
Ramoloneng also grilled G4S on their reasons for asking to be summoned before they could disclose information before the committee.
“From my records and the unannounced visit that we did, from these investigations that you have carried out, they make a recollection that around June when you started dismissing or suspending the officials, you had an idea that this was an escape.
“You did not inform authorities or the DCS in that matter. Hence, you wanted to be summoned to this meeting so that you are protected with what you are going to say here, so that it is not used against you outside. Is this why you wanted to be summoned?”
G4S denied the accusation, citing contractual restrictions that bar the company from talking to any third party relating to the operations of Mangaung Correctional Centre.
“The summons allow us to say to this committee what we cannot say to anyone other than the DCS. We did not seek immunity for fear of saying something today that would incriminate ourselves, ” responded Groenewoud. Ramolobeng asked whether G4S agreed that the escape was itself a breach of the contract with DCS.”I don’t know if it’s a breach or not, I think one will need to look at the contract,” Groenewoud said.Meanwhile Bester and Magudumana landed at Lanseria Airport in Johannesburg after being deported from Tanzania for illegally entering that country. She appeared before the Bloemfontein Magistrate Court on charges of murder and interfering with bodies. She allegedly claimed three bodies from state mortuaries under false pretenses.