As part of the cover-up of Thabo Bester’s audacious prison break, his partner Nandipha Magudumana went to extraordinary lengths to obtain the stand-in corpse from the Hillbrow morgue and cremate it, the Sunday Times can disclose this week.
She succeeded despite a competing claim, backed by an affidavit signed by police, from Bester’s biological mother, Maria Mabaso, and suspicions on the part of the police that the person burnt in the Bloemfontein prison cell on May 3 2022 was not Bester, 35.
Two affidavits supporting their rival claims have been seen by the Sunday Times.
Mabaso also confirmed to the Sunday Times she had tried, unsuccessfully, to take possession of the body while she still believed it was that of her son.
Magudumana, 35, went as far as seeking a court order, in her capacity as Bester’s “customary wife”, citing her “traditional and cultural obligations” to bury the body.
But having secured its release, under conditions that her lawyer said were “confidential”, she did not bury it — as she had insisted was required — but ensured it was cremated.
How she succeeded in doing this — in the face of police suspicions — is unclear and adds another element of mystery to a saga that has gripped the nation and shone an unfavourable spotlight on South Africa’s prisons and criminal justice system.
According to Magadumana’s lawyer, Vuyo Manisi, the body was released from Hillbrow morgue to Sopema Funeral Services in Soweto after a “confidential agreement” was reached with the police.
Magudumana then had it cremated, possibly removing any chance of identifying the body and thus proving that it was not Bester’s.
The corpse was first delivered from the Mangaung prison to Sopema Funeral Services in Soweto at the request of Magadumana. But police, their suspicions aroused, took possession of it there and it was sent to the state morgue in Hillbrow, after Magudumana’s court application.
In the court documents, which the Sunday Times has seen, she argued that she wanted to give her “customary husband” a “dignified burial”.
“It pains me to see my late husband’s body moved around like a pauper. The police are making a mockery of my efforts … to bury the deceased with dignity,” Magudumana said.
But the Sunday Times can reveal that just five days after Magudumana filed her affidavit on May 19 2022, Mabaso, from Sebokeng, made a sworn statement to police that she was Bester’s biological mother and that she had not given anyone permission to bury her son, saying: “I will personally bury my son and I’m going to use my preferred mortuary.”
Yesterday she told the Sunday Times she had been shocked and traumatised when she learned through the media that her son had died.
“When I tried to follow up, the police told me to make a statement if I wanted to get my son. When I wanted to bury him I was told that the body was not my son.
“Now I hear that he is alive, so I do not
know what to believe anymore. This issue has been stressing me. I can’t eat or sleep because I do not know what is happening.”
Mabaso, 57, said she had not seen Bester since he was a child and that her mother had taken up the responsibility of raising him “because I used to work far from Joburg.”
“She was a maid and then she passed on. The first time I saw Thabo after a long time was when he was convicted for the things he was accused of doing.”
Despite police clearly being suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the death, it took months before it became clear that Bester was still alive and at large. It is not known why neither the police nor correctional services alerted the public to Bester’s escape until this month.
Mpumelelo Mabaso, executive assistant at Sopemo Funeral Services, declined to comment “due to confidentiality clauses”.
Two independent Soweto funeral parlour owners with knowledge of the cremation said the corpse was used as a body-double in Bester’s escape.
“It was cremated. Nobody knows where the remains are save for the funeral parlour and the deceased’s family,” said one of the funeral parlour owners.
It is not known when the body, whose true identity remains a mystery, was released for cremation.
State attorney Isaac Chowe, who represented the police in Magudumana’s application, did not respond to questions.
Police seized the body from Sopema on May 6, three days after Bester’s alleged suicide in a fire in his solitary confinement cell.
In Magudumana’s affidavit, she claimed this action by the police had caused her “emotional and psychological stress and trauma”.
“The police have made it evident that they will not stop their unlawful, menacing and harassing conduct towards myself. The burial is urgent. It cannot be denied that a deceased should be buried as soon as practically possible for their soul to rest in peace in accordance with our customs and traditions.”
Magudumana’s affidavit and other court documents in the case show how Bester’s escape almost unravelled as police suspicions about the cell fire mounted.
TimesLIVE Premium this week revealed the escape occurred after prison officials smuggled the body of an unknown person into the prison, where it was stored for two days in the kitchen fridge before it was taken to Bester’s cell and set alight.
During the ensuing chaos Bester slipped out of the jail, which is run by G4S, allegedly disguised as a warder.
Magudumana, who in her affidavit claims she met Bester in 2006 while studying at Wits University, is believed to be with Bester now as they hide from justice.
The suspicions of the investigating officers, Capt Teiho Flyman and Col Jackson Mkhaulesi, were fuelled by the autopsy findings of state forensic pathologist Dr Jacobus Fouche.
Fouche found the person, who was burnt beyond recognition, died from blunt force trauma to the head and not from burn injuries and suffered no smoke inhalation. Traces of an accelerant were found on the body.
At the time Magudumana deposed her affidavit, Flyman and Mkhaulesi had already seized the body from Sopemo.
Christo Prins, owner of RSA Funerals, which transported the body from Bloemfontein to Sopema Funeral Services, told the Sunday Times how police were frantically searching for Bester shortly after his “death”.
“Throughout the journey of taking the body to Soweto my staff were harassed by police, correctional services officials and Magudumana,” he said.
Annexures attached to Magudumana’s affidavit, including FNB proof of payments, show she and the “Thabo Bester family” paid for the body’s transfer to Soweto.
“Never in my career of transporting bodies, have I come across such things,” Prins said.
“The police were asking me where my staff were, where we got the body from, who hired us, where we were going and how we came to be in possession of the body. It was the same with correctional services.
“Every hour we were called. It was clear there were problems. Nandipha was constantly harassing me. She wanted me to divert my staff and do things with the documents we had collected with the body, which we could not by law do. These documents included the identity books and death documents.”
He declined to elaborate, saying the information formed part of the police investigation.
“I asked the police if we should turn around and drop the body with them. They said ‘no, continue’. They said they would take over when we reached Soweto. I was just so glad to be rid of the body.”
Magudumana said in her affidavit: “On May 13, Thabo ought to have been prepared for funeral and autopsy. Flyman instructed Mkhaulesi to remove the body for unknown reasons and threatened me with arrest despite the fact the body was released by correctional services on May 6.
“On May 13 when my father, together with my assistant went to fetch the body, they met with Mkhauseli from Orlando West police station, who arrested and detained them. They threatened me telephonically with arrest.
“My attorney investigated the matter there was no explanation for this outrageous behaviour.”
Magudumana said she met Bester in her first year of medical studies, “when Bester was doing his first year of theology”.
“In 2006, there was no relationship between myself and the deceased, however, we had a very close relationship where we would go out on dates, call each other and see each other often.
“In 2007, Bester left for Cape Town to continue with his studies at the University of Cape Town. Although we were separated by distance, we never lost contact until around 2011. In 2012, I heard through the media that Bester was sentenced and in prison.”
Magudumana said in 2017 she decided to reach out to him to “rekindle” their relationship.
“I would visit him once or twice a month and he would call me while in prison. In May 2017 we began officially dating I enrolled him for a course at Damelin which he was busy with when he passed away.”
She said during a visit in February 2020 Bester proposed to her.
“We both decided to enter a customary marriage. Unfortunately, the lobolo negotiation could not take place due to Covid-19 regulations.”
The negotiations were eventually concluded at her family home in Port Edward on December 14 2021. She said lobolo was set at R60,000, “which was paid in full by Bester’s uncle, who also gave two bottles of brandy”.
Police spokesperson Brig Athlenda Mathe declined to answer detailed questions. “The organised crime unit is leading the investigation.”
Government sources told the Sunday Times that the department of correctional services had given the police names of a number of officials alleged to have aided in the escape, including G4S security supervisor Senohe Matsoara. Matsoara allegedly received a R500,000 VW T-Roc for his assistance.
Contacted for comment, Matsoara denied being on duty that night but a logbook entry, seen by journalist Oliver Meth shows he did report for work. Follow-up calls were met with him telling the reporter in Sesotho to f*** off before he ended the call.