In recent months a battle has erupted at Mangaung prison in South Africa. Mangaung, located near the city of Bloemfontein, is one of the country’s two privately-operated correctional facilities. Managed by British-based G4S, which bills itself as the “world’s largest security” company, Mangaung reflects a troubled criminal justice system littered with overcrowded, poorly resourced prisons. A September 2013 strike by guards from the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) sparked the latest round of drama; the guards were protesting the dismissal of several shop stewards as well as poor working conditions. G4S responded by firing 300 prison staff.
In early October 2013, with the facility still reeling from the mass terminations, a female guard was held hostage for twelve hours. The next day another guard was stabbed. Speaking for G4S, company spokesman Andy Baker alleged that prisoners were being paid to destabilize Mangaung. “We assume it is linked to ongoing staffing strife,” he told the media, implying the union was behind the attacks.
At that point, Minister of Correctional Services Sbu Ndebele stepped in and placed Mangaung under the direct supervision of the state, essentially terminating G4S’s 25-year contract with the South African government signed in 2000. Ndebele claimed G4S management had lost “effective control over the prison.” The move reflected a broader rejection of private prisons by the South African government: Ndebele’s predecessor, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, had blocked the implementation of a bidding process for four more private prisons in 2011. As it presently stands, the country’s only privately-operated facility is Kutama Sinthumule in Limpopo province, co-owned by Kensani Corrections (Pty) Ltd. and the Florida-based GEO Group.
Scandal – Nothing New for G4S
For many, the events at the nearly 3,000-bed Mangaung prison are not surprising. Scandal is nothing new to G4S. The company grabbed global headlines when it failed to hire enough personnel to fulfill its £284 million contract to provide security for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. More recently, British authorities have launched an investigation into the firm for allegedly overcharging the government for electronic monitoring services, including collecting fees for ankle monitors on people who were dead, and for allegedly altering official documents to facilitate the deportation of an asylum seeker.
POPCRU members welcomed Ndebele’s takeover of Mangaung. According to a public statement issued by the union, “the incidents in Mangaung are an indication that privatization ... will never work.” The union decried what it called a “wastage of public funds which could be invested in other critical programs.”
While privatization remains a key issue, especially in regard to labor practices, G4S guards and other prison staff appear to have played crucial roles in the violence at Mangaung. Last year, a Johannesburg-based think tank, the Wits Justice Project, reported widespread patterns of staff abuse of prisoners. The researchers focused on members of the facility’s Emergency Security Team (EST), also known as “Zulus” or “ninjas.”
Thabo Godfrey Botsane, who served six years in Mangaung, spoke to the Wits researchers. He claimed the EST paid him a visit one night in his cell and ordered him to strip naked. “When I refused,” he said, “they threw all my belongings out of the window. They doused me with water and shower gel and then started to kick and electroshock me with their shields. I was injured and bleeding after this assault.”
Themba Tom worked at Mangaung from 2000 to 2008. He verified Botsane’s account, stating that there was a place they called “the dark room because EST members would bring inmates there, strip them naked, pour water over them and electroshock them. We would try not to hear the crying and screaming. It was awful.”
Apart from the use of electroshock, the Wits Justice Project also reported a pattern of forced medication of prisoners by EST members, typically involving powerful psychotropic drugs. Researchers obtained a video taken by prison staff that showed a team of guards holding down a prisoner named Bheki Dlamini while they reportedly gave him an antipsychotic drug called Etomine, which has serious side effects. The film apparently shows Dlamini repeatedly screaming, “no, no, no” and telling the guards, “I am not a donkey, I am not an animal.” The researchers said Dlamini is not psychotic or schizophrenic but was reportedly being punished for complaining about Vienna sausages served for dinner.
Ultimately, the conflict in Mangaung is part of a larger struggle to reform criminal justice in South Africa. This process has drifted far from the ideals of reconciliation and restorative justice that inspired the movement to democracy which swept Nelson Mandela into power in 1994. Over the past decade-and-a-half, South Africa has carried out a program of U.S.-style mass incarceration, adopting policies like mandatory minimum sentences and zero tolerance.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, in 1992 – near the end of apartheid – South Africa had 104,790 prisoners and an incarceration rate of 285 per 100,000 population. As of August 2013 the nation had 156,370 prisoners at a rate of 294 per 100,000 population. Moreover, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has soared from 400 in 1995 to nearly 11,000 today.
Ndebele has called for a major rethinking of South Africa’s overall approach to incarceration. “It is quite shameful for a democratic country to have so many people in prison,” he told a South African Broadcasting Company reporter, “and we need to reduce that while not letting people get away with crime.”
His immediate plan to decarcerate includes an initiative to release 11,000 people from prison and place them on electronic monitoring. Ndebele has also proposed a number of programs that are unprecedented in South African prisons, ranging from compulsory Adult Basic Education classes to employing prisoners to perform labor for the state at less than minimum wage. In a 2012 interview, he cited school construction as one example of the type of work prisoners could do.
While Ndebele has taken important steps by sidelining G4S, launching an early release program and promoting rehabilitation, he has a difficult task in convincing fellow politicians and the voting public as to the need to soften South Africa’s stance on punishment. Certain realities work against his aspirations. For example, the country has an extremely high violent crime rate, with the 2012 murder rate being about six times that of the U.S. Lingering social inequities also present serious obstacles, including a national unemployment rate of 25.6% and, according to a recent Oxfam report, the highest level of income inequality on earth.
Although the Minister of Correctional Services may be getting a grip on the situation involving Mangaung and G4S, tackling the broader transformation of criminal justice in South Africa will require much more time and a considerable change in both public policy and the public’s mindset to yield lasting results.
James Kilgore is a researcher, writer and social justice activist in Champaign, IL. He spent six weeks in a South African prison in 2002 before completing six-and-a-half years in U.S. prisons. He writes frequently on criminal justice issues, has published three novels and provided this article exclusively for PLN. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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