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DG #51 preview: Catching Thabo Bester

Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn, the GroundUp reporters whose investigation proved that Thabo Bester was alive

The 51st issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by our associate editor Matthew Lee about the arrest of Thabo Bester, a South African fugitive who’d spent a year living freely after pulling off an extraordinary prison escape. Marcus Webb spoke to Matthew about a story packed with truly mind-boggling details…

Marcus Webb: Who is Thabo Bester?
Matthew Lee: He’s a convicted murderer and rapist from South Africa, where at the time of his original sentencing he became known in the press as the ‘Facebook rapist’. In May 2022 he was pronounced dead after a fire in his prison cell, but six months later a couple of young journalists began investigating rumours that he had in fact escaped from prison and was still alive. In April he was arrested by Tanzanian police near the Kenyan border and now everyone is trying to figure out what on earth went wrong.

MW: Why did you want to cover this story in Delayed Gratification?
ML: Well, the story didn’t get a huge amount of coverage outside of South Africa, where it dominated the headlines. I saw the story for the first time while working on the April 2023 almanac for the new issue, a few weeks after Bester’s arrest – and I was hooked. I read dozens of reports about Bester on GroundUp, the Cape Town-based nonprofit whose journalists were able to prove that he didn’t die in a fire and was actually living in a Johannesburg mansion with his married girlfriend, a cosmetics doctor and social media influencer.

In addition to the fact that it’s a completely wild story about an elaborate staged death, a jailbreak, an unlikely romance and an outrageous scam involving Hollywood celebrities (you’ll have to read the article for that bizarre subplot), it’s a story about determined young journalists chasing a killer. Ever since reading All the President’s Men many years ago I’ve been drawn to stories about investigative journalism; I really enjoy podcasts such as The Tip-Off, which takes you behind the scenes of big scoops, and with the recent Russell Brand scandal I’ve loved listening to the Times, Sunday Times and Dispatches journalists talking about how they slowly and carefully investigated the allegations over several years. Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn, the GroundUp journalists who tracked down Bester, are the heroes of this story (as well as their informant, a prominent retired judge), and I wanted to tell the story from their perspective.

MW: What does the Thabo Bester story tell us about South Africa?
ML: Marecia and Daniel told me that the country’s prison system and criminal justice system are rotten. The system isn’t working to such an extent that Bester didn’t have to be a criminal mastermind to escape from prison and live freely for almost a year in a mansion. He could bribe prison employees and after his escape he was hardly laying low – he was going to the supermarket and meeting prospective clients in broad daylight for his scam property company. Almost every part of the system failed, but journalists did their job. I was so impressed by Marecia and Daniel’s forensic work and dogged determination, and it’s great to be able to bring their story to DG readers.
You can read the full feature by Matthew Lee in issue 51 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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