It’s all about cooldrink — but not the kind you know …

By Phakamisa Mayaba / In the course of the Thabo Bester saga, pundits have waxed lyrical about the corrupt security cluster as well as the poisoned chalice of roping in the private sector to do government bidding. But many South Africans with less access to the media know that these commentators have overlooked an ubiquitous, relatively uncomplicated but potent factor known as ‘cooldrink’.

In saner places, a cooldrink is a carbonated beverage. In some circles in South Africa, it’s a euphemism for anything to do with graft, accompanied by equally colourful terminology connoting anything from extortion to bribery. It’s a reliable way out of tight situations with law enforcement, a means to get bumped up the queue at the clinic, or to spirit a damning docket out of the police station. Depending on the volume, it works almost every time.

These South Africans knew immediately that Bester must’ve smuggled in truckloads of cooldrink during his sojourn in Mangaung Correctional Centre, following his conviction for rape and murder in 2012.

The man dubbed ‘the Facebook Rapist’ almost got away with outwitting one of the country’s most critical govenrment institutions, laying bare the rot that continues to gnaw away at whatever remains of its integrity in the process. Though one is tempted to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the big fish, the truth is that corruption is so endemic in our society that even the small fry can – and do – make a lucrative side-hustle out of it.

It is by no means coincidental that prison officials, who are underpaid and exposed to rough working conditions, were caught in Bester’s web of deceit.

When he should’ve been in a prison onesie, Bester appeared on a big screen, dressed in a waistcoat and tie, to address attendees at the launch of 21st Century Media held at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton in 2018. The guests, including prominent socialites, were none the wiser that the man they were listening and singing happy birthday to was not, as they understood, in New York, but locked up in Cell 35 of a Bloemfontein prison. The bogus company which Bester ran from prison would just have provided more cooldrink, certainly without complaints on the part of his warders, and he would easily have found willing co-conspirators to aid his daring escape.

How anybody could brazenly smuggle a cadaver into a maximum security facility and set it alight, thereby allowing him to escape in a coffin, shows the shocking depths to which those entrusted with shoring up the system would sink to for a cooldrink. In the absence of the colossal media attention, and Bester’s partner in the form of celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana,  South Africa would hardly have been as immersed in the story. In and of themselves prison escapes are nothing new. A long trail of them dogs the correctional services department.

In 2006, the serial offender Ananias Mathe supposedly escaped from Pretoria’s C Max Prison by smearing himself with Vaseline and wriggling his way through the bars. Of course, this turned out to be a ludicrous explanation; members of Mathe’s Mozambique-based gang had simply forked out a R80 000 cooldrink to warders. IN 2020, in an escape straight out of The Shawshank Redemption, Thabo Zacharia Muyambo and Johannes Chauke made their way out of the Kgosi Mapuru II prison through a hole in the wall of their cell. The Zimbabwean Bongani Moyo had made his second escape from the same prison eight years earlier.

What the Bester case shows is how ethics are a negligible secondary concern in the face of money. Receipts sourced by the Sunday Times show how, during his incarceration Bester and Magudumana often spenr weekends at a hotel in Bloemfontein. Yes, let that sink in – Bester was being let in and out of prison as he so desired. Prison documentaries have revealed  nt only that this is common practice, but also that officials often use prisoners to commit crimes on the outside, as their imprisonment provides them with a watertight alibi.

Judge Edwin Cameron.

Inspecting Judge for the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, Edwin Cameron. Image: Wikipedia

In the midst of all the drama, Judge Edwin Cameron, the inspecting judge for the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, has come out to say: ‘Thabo Bester was not a rare event. It is symptomatic of the degradation of institutional authority, organisational cohesion and management control. This could not have occurred without a significant degradation of almost every organisational and control function that you should have in a prison.’

Besides the cooldrink, Judge Cameron has pointed to another spanner in the institutional works; the tendency of officials to drag their feet. Accoding to Judge Cameron, he informed the minister of justice and correctional services Ronald Lamola, of Bester’s escape in Octobeor last year. While several investigations were being conducted about the same matter, they ground on very slowly.

Frustrated, Judge Cameron then leaked the information to the media, and GroundUp, broke what will arguably be the biggest story of the year.

Meanwhile, thousands of untrained drivers cruise the streets on cooldrink-backed licences. Some are being pulled over for one road infraction after another but, having handed over yet another cooldrink, are soon sent on their merry way. According to reports, Bester went by several aliases, complete with identity documents. Not sure about you, but this smells as if a lot of cooldrink went the way of the Department of Home Affairs as well.

These would have come in very handy when Bester and his accomplices crossed various borders to get into Tanzania, where they were eventually arrested. Now, a parliamentary inquiry and criminal cases are under way, bent on ensuring that the accused face the music. Some damning findings will inevitably be made. A few people will be shown the door, and others the door to a prison cell. But at the same time, amid all the platitudes and political grandstanding, various other people will be getting away with assault, drug trafficking, even murder, only because they are aware of the two magic words in the common tongue; a cooldrink. And therein, to paraphrase The Bard, lies the rub.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap