By Larry Madowo, CNN
If this were the plot of a movie, it would be too far-fetched to be believable. South African authorities have taken over management of a maximum-security prison run by a private British security firm after a high-profile convicted murderer was accused of faking his own death in a fire, then escaping the prison to live in the open with his celebrity doctor girlfriend.
Thabo Bester was deported to South Africa by Tanzanian authorities on Thursday after being arrested in the border town of Arusha, having apparently fled the country, according to a media briefing by the South African Justice Minister and Minister of Police. This comes as media reports raised questions about the prison fire where he was said to have died.
It’s a bizarre story that has embarrassed South Africa, exposed alleged loopholes in the management of a private prison and captivated the nation with every blockbuster revelation.
The 35-year-old convicted murderer was arrested with his girlfriend Dr. Nandipha Magudumana and a Mozambican national named as Zakaria Alberto on Friday. South African police minister Bheki Cele told reporters that the trio had several passports each that had not been stamped and were just 10 kilometers from crossing into Kenya.
Bester was sent to the Kgosi Mampuru Central Maximum prison in Pretoria where he will be closely watched. “We are placing a 24-7 surveillance on him. We’re also placing a 24-7 contact with him with selected highly trained Correctional Services officials to ensure that whatever circumstances he finds himself in, we’ll be on call, and we do not experience any security breach,” South Africa’s Department of Correctional Services (DCS) boss Makgothi Thobakgale told reporters in Cape Town.
Magudumana was also deported to Tanzania and named as an accomplice. She was arrested pending a court appearance on Thursday, according to the Police, and will be charged with murder, fraud as well as aiding and abetting his escape.
Magudumana’s 65-year-old father Zolile Cornelius Sekeleni and a former prison warden, Senohe Ishmael Matsoara, 38, were also arrested and accused of being accomplices in Bester’s escape. The two men were charged with “defeating the ends of justice, fraud, murder, and arson,” in a Bloemfontein court on Tuesday. They did not enter a plea and have no lawyers on record. A judge ordered them to remain in custody until their next court date on April 17.
‘A well-calculated and organized escape debacle’
Bester was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for the rape and murder of model Nomfundo Tyhulu.
A court had previously found him guilty of the rape and robbery of two other women he lured to his home on social media, with local media dubbing him “the Facebook rapist.”
He was initially reported to have died in a fire at the prison last May. But in November, the official position by South African prison authorities that Bester had been found dead in his cell began to unravel after local investigative outlet GroundUp’s reporting raised doubts.
Authorities later concluded that the burned body found in his cell was not Bester, and the person had died before the fire began.
“A case of murder is under investigation following the outcome of the DNA analysis that confirmed that the body of the deceased which was found [in the cell], was not of Thabo Bester,” police and the Justice & Correctional Services ministry said in a joint statement on Saturday.
“The autopsy report went on to further reveal that the deceased had died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head, and was already dead, prior to the arson incident,” it added.
The DCS last month said Bester appeared to have walked out of the facility in “a well calculated and organised escape debacle.” It temporarily took over the management of the prison from the British company G4S, and suspended three of its own officials.
“Greatly worrying is the fact that a private vehicle was allowed inside the facility without a gate pass on the day of the escape, possibly carrying an unknown body that was burnt beyond recognition in cell 35. This talks to a facility that has compromised its security system beyond any reasonable doubt,” the DCS said in a statement last month.
Three G4S officials were pressed by lawmakers on Wednesday to explain how Bester escaped from a maximum security prison they had described as “one of the most secure in South Africa.” Though they deny any wrongdoing, they say three employees who were on duty have been dismissed and seven more remain suspended.
A 22-page report presented alongside the G4S officials’ appearance before the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services said an unauthorized phone and laptop were recovered in Bester’s cell after the fire. Bester’s application to be moved to solitary confinement because “his life was in danger” had been approved just three days before he escaped, they said.
But many lawmakers were not satisfied, accusing the firm of dishonesty and failing to take responsibility for the prison break. “You are a private company in a private public partnership with the state that is dishonest that came and deliberately misled the people’s parliament. What would be your reaction to that?” asked ruling party MP Xola Ngola.
“I would disagree with that,” responded Cobus Groenewoud, a director at G4S. “We have tabled to the committee all the facts available to us.”
They told the committee that there was no security camera footage of the cell on the night of Bester’s escape due to a power failure. They admitted in questioning that the cell is located near an emergency exit and did not rule out staff collusion in the prison break.
Bester’s girlfriend Magudumana is a prominent medical doctor and entrepreneur, with more than 100,000 followers on social media where she posted glamorous pictures, promoted her media appearances, and boasted of awards such as the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans of 2018.
Andre Snyman, a crime analyst who founded the South African community crime network eblockwatch and describes himself as “the agony aunty of crime in South Africa,” told CNN that he met Bester several years ago and described him as charismatic.
“He was an incredibly neat, well-groomed, well-spoken and well-dressed man.” He doesn’t expect Bester to escape a second time though. “He’s South Africa’s Houdini but I don’t think he’ll get out again.”
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CNN’s Jake Kwon in Hong Kong contributed reporting.