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Classic prison breaks immortalised in cinema — think Papillon and Escape from Alcatraz — are the climax of years of planning and stealth, their heroes celebrated for their ingenuity, stamina and yearning for freedom. By contrast, our very own Thabo Bester’s story is a sordid tale of deceit, corruption and murder. 

The headlines produce a gasp of astonishment. In less guarded moments we may live vicariously through Bester: on the run, socialite doctor girlfriend on his arm with 40-odd identities to choose from. A figure so dashing some may even forget, or overlook, that we’re talking about a convicted rapist and murderer.  

His escape from Mangaung Prison exhibited all the qualities of an audacious jailbreak. But it is the ease with which Bester’s backers were able to corrupt, bribe, pay off, extort and otherwise compel the authorities that makes this a quintessentially SA story. 

The enthusiasm with which our law enforcement and other authorities, including employees of reputable private company G4S, were apparently open to looking the other way in return for financial reward should be a matter of serious concern.  

South Africans, in our endless search for justice, plead for arrests and convictions, knowing that only a fraction of serious crimes makes it near the courts. In the rare instance that the scales settle in the people’s favour we are robbed of justice as Bester and his ilk undermine and corrupt our prison system. From police, prisons, home affairs and even our mortuaries the message is clear and unambiguous: nothing is sacred. This is profoundly bad for society.

It shouldn’t go unnoticed that without the media, or indeed a Woolworths till camera, we may never have got to know of the talented Bester and his consort in crime. Are other convicted criminals on the streets outside our knowledge, and just how secure are our prisons?  

Stiff headwinds

Justice minister Ronald Lamola says he is confident Bester will be back in SA soon, and he must be grateful for this small victory after the rolling debacle that is the foundering extradition of the Gupta brothers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After being flat-footed by the UAE authorities, the National Prosecuting Authority and the government will be grateful for a “Bester bounce” to salve their dented reputations. 

The extradition of the Guptas was always an exercise that faced stiff headwinds. The news from the UAE will have been a huge relief to many high-ranking officials in the ANC who were particularly close to the state capture kingpins. The suspicion that authorities were less than wholly motivated to bring about the extradition will linger in the public mind.  

The Guptas’ absence may spare some ANC blushes, or jail terms, but the sting of the UAE’s dismissal of our request will remain. The first we knew was when the Guptas were spotted in Switzerland, holidaying, again thanks to the media. Bester showed us we’re a nation in which justice is for sale at a price; the Guptas put a number on that depravity, their extended holiday in the South Pacific a lasting testament to just how easy, and cheap, it is to buy off the SA authorities. 

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