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Private prisons are criminal enterprises. Thabo Bester’s escape proves it.

By Gugulethu Hughes

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV. 

Prison services are a delicate area whose administration has sociological implications. The only incentive for the state is the correction of prisoners’ behaviors so that they become better human beings who can add value to society. But it becomes a contradiction when the management of prison services gets outsourced to private companies whose primary goal is profit and shareholder value. This is the predicament that the South African government finds itself in its twenty-five-year contract with American security company G4S which runs until year 2026 and will earn the company billions of rands.  

The spectacular escape of notorious prisoner Thabo Bester and his flamboyant scammer antics while inside the Mangaung Correctional Facility is a reflection of how private businesses managing prisons are as criminal as some of the people in their custody. Private-run prisons are also a result of the bourgeoisie political class occupying positions in government. It is these politicians who are easily influenced by private businesses to contract them for critical services like prison management, in exchange for cash flows that guarantee a life of opulence. 

Over and above the profit goals of the private prison industry, the outsourcing of this service also serves as a threat to national security. It is absurd that prison security, tasked with monitoring even the most hardened criminals, gets outsourced to private companies that are capitalist in nature and against states that put the interests of their citizens first. 

The concept of privatization of prisons was first introduced in South Africa in 1996 by then Correctional Services Minister Sipho Mzimela after his fact-finding mission to Europe and America on how the private sector combated prison overcrowding. In his research report titled “Privatisation of Prisons and Prison Services in South Africa,” Prof. Mfanelo Ntsobi noted that Mzimela’s trip abroad was not a coincidence. Previously, Mzimela served as a prison chaplain in the USA where he had already bought into the idea of privatization.  

On his return, Sipho Mzimela stated, “Wherever the private sector got involved, they have delivered a better service and they had done it at a less cost to the taxpayer. What I have seen in the United States is very good, the prisons that are run by the private companies are far more efficient in every sense because they are run by businesspeople, unlike those run by the Department of Correctional Services who are not necessarily trained to run businesses…” 

A prison privatization plan had already been compiled by the Ministry of Finance and Treasury, presented to the cabinet and saw the Department of Correctional Services get increased from R2.5 billion to R3.3 billion for the 1997/98 year. 

In 2000, British company G4S, before its acquisition by American company Allied Universal, landed itself a contract as part of a consortium to build and run the Mangaung Correctional Facility. G4S got the role of providing security services to the prison which became the first private run prison facility in South Africa. Within three months of opening, the facility was filled up, and G4S earned handsomely per prisoner head as it continues to do.  

It would have been an achievement had the contract awarded to G4S with its consortium partners not been marred by controversy, irregularity, and conflicts of interest. A 2022 article featured in Sunday Independent provided the gory details surrounding the contract negotiated in bad faith. 

According to the publication, some correctional services officials who were responsible for negotiating the 25-year contract went on to join G4S as soon as the contract was awarded. The government is reported to spend more than a billion rands a month on prisoners held in the Mangaung Correctional Facility and the other private prison Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre in Limpopo run by American GEO Group. 

G4S shenanigans at the Mangaung Correctional Facility gained prominence through the investigative work of Ruth Hopkins. Her book speaks on uncovering the brutality of G4S on prisoners in 2012. These acts included torture and injection of prisoners with anti-psychotic drugs that led to memory loss and nearly turned them into zombies. The use of these drugs also shows the hand of the pharmaceutical industry in the prison system. The running of the prison was for 10 months taken away from G4S, though the company continued to get paid.  

In 2013, Correctional Services Minister S’bu Ndebele informed parliament that the privatization of prisons experiment was not producing the desirable result and ordered an investigation into Mangaung Correctional Facility’s leadership. Before the report could be completed and presented, S’bu Ndebele was removed from his portfolio and posted to Australia as South Africa’s ambassador. Michael Masutha was appointed as the new minister of correctional services, and one of his first tasks was to hand over control of the prison back to G4S. 

More revelations of inhumane treatment of prisoners at the Mangaung Facility were presented in the Setlai Report, but Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula ignored the reports while participating in the “punishment” of whistleblowers. 

G4S’ misconduct is not a new phenomenon. It’s been widely covered by multiple organizations in areas where the company provides “care and justice services” consisting of prison management and security. The company runs private prisons in the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. New Frame provided the most detailed timeline of G4S’ unethical acts.  

The misdeeds range from fraud to torture and brutality. One of G4S’s worst abuses was in Israel, where it ran prisons that tortured Palestinian children. The company is an enforcer of Israeli apartheid. When the company was outed by organizations like the BDS movement, it exited Israel but maintained a stake in the company that took over while continuing to provide training services to Israeli police. The exposure of G4S in Israel even led to Bill Gates divesting billions of rands worth of shares his foundation held in the company. 

G4S also holds contracts to handle detentions and deportations of refugees in the UK. The company came into the spotlight in 2009 when three of its employees killed Angolan Jimmy Mubenga. A British jury went on to acquit the G4S employees even after ample evidence of their racist actions was presented, perhaps a reflector of structural British racism. 

A study by a Malawian academic detailed the company’s unethical and criminal activity in all its divisions in Southern Africa and all of Africa where it has presence in over 18 countries. In South Africa, the company went as far as using its workers as a front for black economic empowerment laws while not remunerating them accordingly. 

Allied Universal’s acquisition of G4S in 2021 was a match made in heaven as Allied, which runs the show in the USA and Americas, has its own history of barbaric prison activities. The school-to-prison pipeline in the USA targeted at black Americans bodes well for Allied Universal’s actions in Africa. 

The acquisition of G4S by Allied Universal was led by private equity firm Warburg Pincus. Timothy Geithner, who helped banks escape the 2008 financial crisis as Obama’s Treasury Secretary, is the President of Warburg Pincus. In 2016, the Obama administration injected more than a billion dollars to the private prison industry as a motivator for the building of new facilities and detention of Central American women and children seeking asylum in the USA. The no-bid contract was given to Corrections Corporation of America which has a colorful history of defrauding the state. It therefore came as no surprise that regardless of G4S’ widely publicized scandals, Allied Universal, owned by a company with links to Obama, found it prudent to bid and acquire G4S. The company rode on the lie that it would exit the “care and justice business” part of G4S. 

It therefore comes as no surprise that G4S continues to enjoy the protection of the South African government whose anchors are deep in the citadel of bourgeois malfeasance. The Thabo Bester escape is a possible work of G4S executives, top government officials, and lower-level prison officials. His company 21st Century Media, that he ran from prison, generated billions but allegedly acted as a money laundering channel used to cover illicit financial activities by G4S and government officials. The parliamentary committee that is engaged in the Thabo Bester case is nothing but staged theatrics and outrage, G4S is used to dents and the company has greased too many influential hands to suffer consequences. 

As a matter of fact, G4S’ reputation is malfeasance. Therefore, it is not surprising that the South African government, still largely influenced by the British, found it just to wed G4S and continue with the marriage even though humanitarian scandals continued to rock G4S.  

There are more palatable reasons than the Thabo Bester escape for the government to not renew the G4S contract in 2026. While the public continues to be victims of psychological manipulation, G4S continues to earn, and government officials linked to the company continue to live lives of opulence. The real industrial-level thorn in the flesh of South Africans is not Thabo Bester, but privatization of prisons and many other sectors that require state ownership and control. Considering that the bumbling Cyril Ramaphosa has acquired IMF loans of magnanimous proportions, whose conditions rank privatization highly, it is highly possible that as the police force gets reduced it will soon get replaced by G4S. 

To have a terrorist organization like G4S as one of Africa’s top employers is the perfect recipe for the subtle recolonization of the continent.

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Gugulethu Hughes


Gugulethu Hughes is the ScoonTV Africa correspondent

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