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Finding Thabo Bester: Corporate Power in the South African Prison Industry

Finding Thabo Bester: Corporate Power in the South African Prison Industry

While everyone is excited about Thabo Bester and Nandipha Magudumana, the story may be much deeper than this action-packed movie. I am not interested in why the crime involving Bester, Magudumana and others occurred, but in why it was exposed. The story behind the story could be much more than what meets the eye. The Thabo Bester saga concerns something that no journalist wants to talk about, i.e., profits and corporate power in the South African prison industrial complex. This op-ed provides a background on the booming business of incarcerations as a possible trigger for the story that currently makes headlines. It also concerns the globalisation of production and entrenched corporate power that stand to collapse many developing countries worldwide.

Tracy Chang and Douglas Thompkins argue that “the prison industrial complex comprises two major segments: prison privatisation and prison industrialisation". The majority of South African prisons are run by the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), which is a government agency responsible for managing the country's correctional system. However, there are a few private prisons that have been contracted out to private companies. The privatisation of prisons in South Africa is a controversial issue that has generated significant debate and criticism from human rights advocates and civil society organisations. With the country suffering from a high unemployment rate, poverty, income inequality and violence, criminologists such as David Barlow and Wesley Johnson have found that the factors lead to increases in the incarceration rate, which, in turn, makes correctional services a lucrative industry for private companies.

In South Africa, the state has contracted with private companies to operate some of its prisons since the early 2000s, following a trend that began in the United States in the 1980s “as a response to overcrowding in government-run facilities”. Private companies are involved in various aspects of correctional tenders, including healthcare, food, maintenance and inmate management. “In 1980, the federal and state prisons and local jails together held a total of 500,000 people, but by 2000 the prison and jail population had surged to 1.9 million,” according to Chang and Thompkins. Today, approximately 8% of the total US prison population is housed in private prisons, with the largest private prison companies being CoreCivic and GEO Group.

The documentary "13th," directed by Ava DuVernay, details the involvement of private companies in correctional services tenders and corruption in the US. The documentary examines the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the US, and highlights the role of for-profit prisons and their influence on policy and legislation. It also explores the corrupt practices and human rights abuses that have occurred in private prisons and the impact of these practices on communities of colour. As a point of interest, the film's title refers to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. While the documentary primarily focuses on the private prison industry in the US, there are some connections to the situation in South Africa as well. For example, the film discusses how the US government exported its "tough on crime" policies to other countries, including South Africa, during the apartheid era.

In South Africa’s case, the involvement of private companies has grown rapidly in recent years, with approximately 10% of the total prison population now housed in private facilities. According to a report by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), there are currently three private prisons in South Africa. Firstly, the Mangaung Correctional Centre (MCC) is a maximum-security prison located in Bloemfontein. It is operated by the British security company G4S, which was awarded the contract in 2000. Notably, MCC is run by G4S as part of a consortium with BEE partners. As of 2021, G4S South Africa had several BEE partners, including Sechaba Capital, Tsebo Solutions Group and Legae Peresec. The prison has been criticised for its treatment of prisoners, including allegations of torture and inhumane conditions. This is the prison from where Bester’s shenanigans began.

Located in Limpopo, Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre is a medium-security prison located in Limpopo Province. It is operated by the South African subsidiary of the British company Serco, which was awarded the contract in 2005. The prison has also been criticized for poor conditions and mistreatment of prisoners. Lastly, the Sondelani Correctional Centre is a low-security prison located in Mpumalanga Province. It is operated by the South African company Bosasa (now known as African Global Operations), which was awarded the contract in 1999. Bosasa has been at the centre of several corruption scandals, and the company's founder was found guilty of corruption and money laundering in 2019.

Nonetheless, the private companies running these correctional centres, have all been implicated in allegations of tender fraud, corruption, and human rights abuses in South Africa. Firstly, Serco is a British multinational company that operates in a range of industries, including security and defence. In South Africa, the company was awarded a contract to operate the Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre in 2005. However, the company has been accused of a range of abuses at the prison, including overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and mistreatment of prisoners. In 2013, the SAHRC launched an investigation into conditions at the prison, and in 2016, Serco was fined R20 million by the government for breaching its contract.

Secondly, G4S is another British multinational company that operates in the security industry. The company was awarded a contract to operate the MCC in 2000. The prison has been the subject of several controversies, including allegations of torture, inhumane conditions, and human rights abuses. The Bester story is the latest of many. In 2013, a report by the government found that G4S had violated the human rights of prisoners at the facility, and in 2018, the company agreed to pay R20 million to settle a lawsuit brought by former prisoners who had been subjected to abuse at the prison.

Thirdly, Bosasa has been at the centre of several corruption scandals in the country. The company was awarded a contract to operate the Sondelani Correctional Centre in 1999 and also provided catering and other services to other South African prisons. However, the company has been accused of a range of corrupt activities, including bribing government officials to secure contracts, inflating prices for services, and providing substandard food to prisoners. In 2019, the company's founder, Gavin Watson, was found guilty of corruption and money laundering, and several other senior executives were also charged with corruption.

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact worth of the use of private companies in correctional services tenders in South Africa, it is a complex issue that has many different financial implications. However, it is worth noting that the private prison industry in South Africa is a significant and growing market, with estimates suggesting that it is worth billions of rands. For example, in 2018, the DCS spent R23 billion (USD 1.6 billion) on private prison contracts.

Bosasa carried its fair share of the negative publicity, and now G4S is right in the centre of the Bester crimes. G4S is not a small fry in the global security business as it operates in roughly 90 countries and employs at least 570,000 people worldwide, running private prisons in South Africa, as well as the UK, Australia, the US and Palestinian territories. Out of this number, G4S operates in 29 countries in Africa and boasts that it employs more than 119 000 across the continent in areas like the security of installations like prisons and airports, insurance, cash handling, etc. In 2019 alone, the company’s revenue was reported at USD 10.7 billion. G4S is one of South Africa’s biggest private employers with some 15,000 people on its payroll. The prison business is among its most profitable undertakings. Hence, the Thabo Bester exposé is a sign of competition over profits and rampant corruption involving private companies in the South African prison industrial complex.

The “13th” documentary shows how private companies in the USA have used their political power and lobbying efforts to influence the criminal justice system and protect their profits. While the Bosasa scandal exposed the behind-the-scenes occurrences, the extent of corporate power in South Africa’s prison-industrial complex is yet to be documented. The Bester saga is just a smokescreen and is meaningless in light of corporate might that is yet to be understood. Ruth Hopkins’ book ‘The Misery Merchants: Life and Death in a Private South African Prison’ does nonetheless show that G4S is a god with superpowers to abuse and torture inmates at the MCC. But the profitability of the prison sector in South Africa still requires more interrogation.

With the G4S contract at the MCC nearing its end in 2026, more drama involving correctional centres and other places where the company operates is to be expected.

Siya yi banga le economy!

[The write-up is part of my ongoing doctoral research concerning persistent human rights violations by corporations in SA in spite of the country’s strong inclinations towards democracy and human rights.]

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Siyabonga Hadebe

Siyabonga Hadebe

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