GroundUp has uncovered new evidence that reveals suspicious circumstances in the prison fire thought to have killed “Facebook rapist” Thabo Bester.
- Minutes before a fire broke out in Thabo Bester’s prison cell at the Mangaung Correctional Centre, CCTV cameras observed people hastily leaving the prison.
- After the fire, a body was found in the cell, burned beyond recognition under the mattress. The autopsy report revealed the person was dead before the fire broke out.
- Celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana collected the body, claiming to be Bester’s wife, but the body was later confiscated by police.
- A woman who says she is Bester’s biological mother also tried to claim the body, but her DNA did not match the body’s.
On 3 May 2022, the Department of Correctional Services announced that Bester was found dead in his cell at the Mangaung Correctional Centre, a maximum security private prison operated by multinational security company G4S. A fire had broken out and a body was found under a burnt mattress.
Bester became known as the “Facebook rapist” because he used the social media platform to lure women with claims that international modelling scouts were interested in them. He would then rape them and rob them using a knife. He murdered at least one of his victims. In 2012, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for these crimes.
GroundUp has learnt that in the early hours of the morning of the fire, people were seen on CCTV cameras hastily exiting the prison.
In January, we revealed that the person whose body was found in the cell was dead before the fire broke out. According to the post-mortem report, which we have seen, the person was killed by a blunt force injury to the head.
The body’s height at the time of the autopsy was 1.45m. But in a police mugshot, Bester stood taller, at just over 1.7m. (While this is suspicious, a forensic pathologist told GroundUp that it is possible for a pathologist to underestimate the height of a burnt body.)
The post-mortem report also noted a “strong smell of accelerant (paraffin)” from the body’s trachea and bronchi. The whole body was charred, and the hands and face were particularly badly burned. After the autopsy, the police docket relating to the matter was changed from suicide to murder.
Bester’s “customary law” wife, celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana, claimed the body from the mortuary shortly after the fire. But after the autopsy, the police confiscated the body for further investigations. A woman who said she is Bester’s biological mother then tried to claim the body, but her DNA did not match the body’s.
Ten months later, investigations by the South African Police Service (SAPS), the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), and the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), are still incomplete.
“Moved around like a pauper”
Three days after the fire, on 6 May 2022, Magudumana collected Bester’s body from the state morgue in Mangaung, claiming to be Bester’s customary law wife.
Magudumana runs a cosmetics surgery company called Optimum Medical Aesthetic Solutions. She has 124,000 Instagram followers and was named one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2018.
She took the body to a mortuary in Soweto, but it was confiscated by police upon instruction from the investigating officer in Mangaung. Further investigations were then conducted on the body.
Magudumana approached the Pretoria High Court on 19 May, requesting that the body be returned to her. She also asked the court for a declaratory order entitling her to bury Bester. The court has not yet made a final ruling on the matter.
In her founding affidavit, Magudumana argued that as Bester’s customary law wife, she had the burial rights, and indicated that she wanted an independent autopsy to be conducted to determine the cause of death. She also claimed the police had threatened and intimidated her.
She gave a full account of her relationship with Bester and lobola negotiations which resulted in them becoming married under customary law.
But Magudumana’s affidavit did not mention that she had been in a civil marriage with another man since 2013, and is still registered as such on Home Affairs’ database. Under customary law, marriages are not allowed if one party is already married under civil law.
Magudumana said in her affidavit that her father and assistant had been detained by police when trying to collect the body from the mortuary in Soweto. “It pains me to see my late husband’s body being moved around like a pauper,” she said.
She also claimed that she had met Bester in 2006 while studying at Wits University. They had a good relationship until they lost contact in 2011. She reached out to Bester in 2017 to “rekindle our relationship” and started visiting him in prison.
“Whenever he had any concerns and/or problems and any issues in prison, I was the only person who would communicate with lawyers to try and resolve those issues,” she said. She also said that she would regularly pay money into his prison account and that Bester proposed to her in February 2020.
Magudumana claimed that Bester’s mother died while he was young and that he was raised by his grandmother. “I do not know any relatives of the deceased that are still alive,” she said.
But in an answering affidavit, the investigating officer at Bloemspruit police station, Tieho Flyman, said that the police are no longer in possession of the body. Flyman said that after “further investigations” were completed, the body was claimed by Meisie Mabaso, who said she was Bester’s biological mother.
“The investigation insofar as the body is concerned was completed and the Applicant [Magudumana] is free to claim the remains from the said Mabaso Meisie Marya,” said Flyman in the affidavit.
GroundUp spoke to Meisie Mabaso on the phone. She said that she went to pick up the body after hearing about it on the radio and wanted to bury him. But she wasn’t given the body because DNA results comparing her to the body, did not match.
Mabaso told GroundUp that she did not have a strong relationship with her son because he was raised by his grandmother, who has since passed away. She said that she was unaware of Bester’s supposed marriage to Magudumana.
During his sentencing trial in 2011, Bester said under oath that he was abandoned by his mother at a young age. He also said he dropped out of school in Grade 5, yet Magudumana says she met him at university.
GroundUp has seen a “Request for Removal of a Body” application letter from July 2022 – two months after the affidavits were filed – signed by a senior member of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The application letter states that the investigation into the death and identity of the body is still ongoing. According to the letter, Magudumana claimed the body on 6 May 2022 and intended to cremate it. But before she could cremate it, “the mother of deceased viz Mrs Maria Bester [likely the same person as Meisie Mabaso] contacted the Police in Gauteng claiming the same body.”
The letter confirms that DNA tests comparing the body to Mabaso were done and no match was found. According to the letter, the body was still being kept at the mortuary in Soweto as of July 2022. We could not confirm where the body is currently.
Magudumana, via her lawyer Vuyo Manisi, declined to answer GroundUp’s emailed questions. “This matter has not been resolved by the parties involved and it is our client’s request that all questions related to the matter be stayed pending the finalisation of the matter,” Manisi said.
What happened on the night of the fire?
GroundUp understands that police and DCS investigations into the incident are still ongoing. But it is ten months later and the progress of the investigations appears to be painfully slow. In the meantime, we have been piecing together information from various sources to understand what happened on the night of the fire.
A source, whose name is known to GroundUp, told us that before the fire broke out, a prison official placed Bester in a corner cell by himself. We understand this cell was rarely used because it is difficult for the CCTV cameras to see into it.
We have also gained access to a copy of the logbook from the prison’s control room. According to the logbook, an official reported smoke at 3am. Just after 4am, a large amount of smoke was seen coming from Bester’s cell.
On the night of the fire, the CCTV cameras pointing to the exit of the prison were apparently not at the correct angle. Yet we have learnt that at 2:59 am and 50 seconds, seconds before the smoke was first reported, almost at the frame edge of footage captured on a CCTV camera, two people can be seen hastily exiting the prison.
According to the logbook, the local police station in Bloemspruit was called at about 4:25am, but the number didn’t work. A call was then made to the 10111 call centre which answered at 5am — they were then finally transferred to local police.
According to the logbook, the person in the cell, presumed to be Bester, was declared dead at 5.10am and the police only arrived at 6.45am.
GroundUp understands that several officials have been suspended or dismissed, including the official who placed Bester in the cell and the two control room officers who were on duty the night of the fire.
Questions still remain
The circumstances of the fire and death remain shrouded in mystery. The following questions remain:
- Has the body been positively identified as Thabo Bester, either through DNA testing or dental records?
- Has any meaningful progress been made in the investigations by SAPS and DCS?
- If the body found in the cell was not Bester, who was it and how did the person die?
- Have the police ruled out the possibility that Bester escaped from prison?
- Who were the people seen leaving the prison on the night of the fire?
“All possibilities are being explored during the investigation,” JICS spokesperson Emerantia Cupido told GroundUp. JICS — the judicial prison watchdog — relies on information from SAPS and DCS to complete their investigation. SAPS and DCS did not respond to GroundUp’s questions at the time of publication.
Published originally on GroundUp | By Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn