Thabo Bester saga: Prison department denies it has autopsy report. Here it is!

The autopsy was completed a day after the fire and found that the man was dead before his body was burnt

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Front page of the autopsy of the body that may or may not have been Thabo Bester.

In an interview on eNCA on Saturday, the spokesperson for the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) Singabakho Nxumalo said that his department did not have the autopsy report on the body found in the prison cell of convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester.

ENCA interview with the spokesperson for DCS Singabakho Nxumalo on 18 March 2023.

Almost a year ago, on 3 May 2022, DCS announced that Bester had died after a fire broke out in his cell. But there is compelling evidence that the body found in the cell was not that of Bester and that Bester had escaped from prison.

Although Nxumalo says his Department does not have the post-mortem (autopsy) report, GroundUp does have it. It was completed on 4 May 2022, the day after the fire. It is a public document part of a court record.

Here it is (PDF 17MB). (We’ve removed the last two pages because they contain irrelevant identifying information.)

“We stand by our statement of 3 May 2022,” Nxumalo said on Saturday. This is despite the compelling evidence we published this week suggesting that Bester may have escaped from prison.

Nxumalo said on eNCA that when an unnatural death is reported in a prison, such as in the case of a fire, an autopsy must be conducted and the cause of death must identified. “As we are seated now, Correctional Services doesn’t have the outcome of [the police] investigation, doesn’t have the autopsy report,” Nxumalo said.

The results of the autopsy were mentioned in a report written by judges Nokuthula Daniso and Ilse Van Rhyn and delivered in December last year. GroundUp published an article about it in January.

We obtained the post-mortem report from papers filed with the Pretoria High Court on 31 May 2022.

In the autopsy report, which is attached to the police’s answering affidavit, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr Jacobus Fouche, writes that the autopsy was completed on 4 May 2022 and that the cause of death was blunt force injury to the head.

GroundUp understands that because of the findings of the autopsy report, the police docket relating to the matter was changed from suicide to murder.

The court case was brought by celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana. She approached the Pretoria High Court in May 2022 to have the body returned to her after it was confiscated by police. She had collected the body on 6 May, claiming to be Bester’s customary law wife.

The same court papers reveal that a woman claiming to be Bester’s mother tried to claim the body, but she was refused after her DNA did not match that of the body.

The post-mortem report also reveals the following:

  • The body’s face and hands were particularly badly burned, while the whole body was severely charred
  • A strong smell of paraffin suggested that an accelerant was used in the fire
  • The height of the body was 1.45m. In a police mugshot, Bester stands taller at over 1.7m.

eNCA presenter Heidi Giokos asked Nxumalo why almost a year later, DCS still doesn’t have the report. In response, Nxumalo said: “I must say that this is not something out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, we do wait some time to get these autopsy reports.”

We have been publishing stories on Thabo Bester since November 2022. We have given DCS and the South African Police Services (SAPS) multiple opportunities to respond to our questions and the evidence we have been uncovering, but more often than not we did not receive a satisfactory response.

This week, after we published our most recent reports, police minister Bheki Cele indicated that the body has not been positively identified as Thabo Bester through DNA testing. “It might be correct that there is somebody out there,” he said. He said he will be discussing the matter with Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola.

SAPS told GroundUp that investigations are ongoing and that it “has reached a very critical stage”.

In a statement released on Friday, DCS said there have been “no new developments” in the investigation – ten months after the fire broke out in the cell where Bester was kept. The department also said that its investigation is ongoing and that it cannot confirm or deny the information in our reports.

Correction on 2023-03-18 18:07

The date on which Nandipha Magudumana collected the body was 6 May, not 5 May.

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