The Thabo Bester Story: The Facebook Rapist, the Celebrity Doctor and the Escape from Cell 35

Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn, The Thabo Bester Story: The Facebook Rapist, the Celebrity Doctor and the Escape from Cell 35 (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2023)

IT is tempting to regard this story as truth stranger than fiction. But that discounts the basic normality of the characters involved given Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn’s conclusions about the ‘banality, greed and materialism that drive celebrity culture in South Africa today.’

First there is Thabo Bester who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances and left school after grade 5 to become a con man. With a narcissistic personality, charm and over-abundant charisma, and a tenuous hold on truth he led a life of scamming in the media and modelling industries for which he received a prison sentence for fraud. Along the way he raped, and assaulted with a knife, an unknown number of women and murdered one of them in September 2011. He returned to jail to serve a life sentence. Without a birth certificate or ID book he had already managed to acquire considerable wealth and, reputedly, dozens of cell phones. From prison he continued to assume false identities and mount scams masquerading as a New York businessman called Tom Motsepe and running a fake company called 21st Century Media via social media. Alternatively calling himself T.K. Nkwana, and presumably with yet more forged documents, he co-signed a lease for a house in Sandton

Second there is Nandipha Magudumana (née Sekeleni) whose childhood was more comfortable and who qualified as a doctor at Wits University. But instead of serving society she opted to be an entrepreneur and ran what was basically a Johannesburg beauty parlour. Why she should receive so many accolades for this is hard to imagine except that we live in a superficial, self-regarding age that focuses on appearances. She also later registered a construction company. With her husband, a paediatrician, Magudumana lived in luxury with their two children.

Such life histories are not unusual or even very remarkable in South Africa today. And what are of course commonplace are the legions of corruptible, amoral and incompetent state and private sector employees. Without them Bester and Magudumana would not have attained notoriety. It’s not known how the latter met the former or why she became involved in his escape from Mangaung prison, managed by G4S just outside Bloemfontein, but she seems to have been a business associate from 2018.

In May 2022 Magudumana extracted a body from a morgue, but Bester’s escape had to be postponed so the corpse was ditched in a river and the coffin at the supposed funeral filled with meat. Another body was claimed and this one was smuggled into the prison on 3 May 2022 in a cabinet with Bester having booked a cell in the segregation section, conveniently near an emergency exit. That night surveillance and security systems fail to work. In cell 35 was a burned body assumed to be that of Bester. As early as 5 May, Magudumana claimed the body as that of her boyfriend Bester and had it moved to Soweto. But the inquest report the next day revealed that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head prior to burning. Magudumana and her father were denied possession of the corpse and she went to court to claim it.

So, within hours there was evidence that Bester had not died in cell 35. This was shown beyond doubt when his mother Meisie Mabaso came forward to claim the burnt body, which her DNA unsurprisingly did not match. Meanwhile, Bester and Magudumana led a very public life in considerable luxury as supposed property developers. The Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services in August 2022 provided the first official report to state that Bester did not die in his cell; and his escape was verified by an inmate whistleblower two months later. Then followed weeks of official ineptitude and indifference broken only by a press expose in March 2023 by GroundUp accompanied by photographs of Bester with Magudumana in Sandton.

Two days later the couple disappeared over the border and officialdom finally admitted to the public that Bester had escaped and been at large for ten months without any of his victims being informed. Mangaung Prison was, with justification, then placed under administration. Two coffins buried in funerals organised by Magudumana were found to contain rotting meat and maize meal and five days later on 7 April she and Bester were arrested in Tanzania and subsequently extradited. Their cases have yet to be tried with Magudumana making claims about illegal extradition that have already been dismissed in court. Bail has been denied.

One of the few bright spots in this saga has been the performance of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services which with competence and cross-party solidarity exposed ineptitude and indifference in the police and prisons service and by private contractors. The latter in the form of Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts and G4S seem actively to have obstructed investigations under the guise of confidentiality and were still insisting Bester had committed suicide in prison long after it was clearly apparent that he had escaped.

There has been a great deal of public interest in this escapade and the principal actors. Bester, known as the Facebook Rapist, comes as no surprise except for his extraordinarily brazen behaviour. Exactly why Magudumana with so much apparently going for her should throw it all away for Bester is cause for ongoing speculation. The Bonnie and Clyde syndrome (hybristophilia) is put forward in this book as a possible explanation. But what should be of general concern is how all their criminality could be enabled.

A clue lies in the fact that one of the companies involved in security at Mangaung prison was linked to Gavin Watson’s Bosasa and thus to Zuma/Gupta state capture. Corruption at all levels enables ruthless opportunists like Bester to thrive. And he in turn is a manifestation of the moral vacuum at the heart of South African society. No doubt before long there will be a film based on his escape. And equally likely, Damons and Steyn’s point about celebrity culture will be ignored fuelling further myth and social decay.


Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld