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South Africa: New Books | the Misery Merchants

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Investigative journalist Ruth Hopkins delves into the heart of a private prison in Mangaung, where whistleblowers tell of tortured inmates and gangs paying off warders.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from The Misery Merchants: Life and Death in a Private South African Prison (Jacana Media, 2020) by Ruth Hopkins.

Chasing Setlai

Whistleblowers form an invaluable part of my work and professional success. Without them, I would never have broken stories, exposed wrongdoings or even made a name for myself. In every investigation I have carried out, I worked alongside men and women who helped me uncover injustice.

What makes some people decide to blow a whistle and others keep their mouths shut? Every time I meet a source who is prepared to risk livelihood and security for elusive ideals such as “the right thing” or “justice denied”, I am amazed. I have never been in a situation where I would have to make that choice.

But not all whistleblowers are filled with a sense of justice. I have met some along the way who were filled with feelings of revenge; they wanted to “out” a particular person. Others had a distinct and acute moral objection and felt the need to bring to light more systemic forms of abuse. Others still wanted to feel important and sought the limelight, vicariously. This last group, without exception, consisted of people working on a book of their own.

Most whistleblowers I’ve met were bad sleepers. They had good, dysfunctional or no relationships; they were married, single, widowed or cheating on their partner. They were mostly cranky middle-aged men with beer bellies, bald spots and sometimes an alcohol problem. Their spouses often did not want to hear about their “work problems” and told them to stop talking about “those things”. This made them isolated and distrustful. What kept them awake at night was often the very reason they were talking to me.

Tatolo Setlai’s motives were never clear to me; I didn’t fully understand why he agreed to speak to me in the first place. Every time I managed to secure an appointment with him, he became more of a mystery. He was a reluctant whistleblower to start with and cancelled meeting after meeting, or just didn’t show. Maybe jaded was a better word to describe him. That possibly stemmed from the fact that he had been blowing his whistle for too long.

Trying to meet with Setlai felt like the gender-reversed equivalent of a desperate young man trying to secure a date with a reluctant, arrogant yet beautiful girl. I chased him, he rejected me and instead of discouraging me, it invigorated me. I kept designing new strategies to persuade him to meet with me.

Dan and Lwazi, my main sources at the prison, had repeatedly mentioned Tatolo Setlai, who was a Department of Correctional Services (DCS) controller at Mangaung for 10 months from 2008 to 2009.

“He wrote a scathing report about the prison and was punished for it,” Lwazi had told me at the end of one of my visits. He’d leaned in towards me with more urgency than usual.

“He knows everything.”

As he passed me Setlai’s phone number, I wondered how Lwazi knew so much.

After months of chasing him, we finally have a date. It’s April 2013, and he’s still working for the DCS in the Free State and the Northern Cape, so our conversations are off the record. Years later, after he retires, he will go on the record.

I arrive at the Wimpy in Mimosa Mall at the agreed time, order a coffee and wait. As the minutes and then the hours tick by, I realise he’s not going to come. My phone calls and text messages go unanswered.

When I feel sufficiently frustrated, I SMS him angrily that I’ve driven all the way from Johannesburg just for this meeting, which is a lie. It is nevertheless effective. Come by my office the next day, he responds. When I enter his office in the DCS office on Zastron Street the next day, he’s seated behind a large desk. A middle-aged, overweight man with a shiny bald head, a double chin and small eyes, he’s in his brown DCS uniform, with several pips on his epaulettes. When he sees me, he raises his bushy eyebrows, straightens his back and quickly tries to close his unbuttoned jacket with one hand.

He motions at me to sit down. I instantly forget the introduction I’d composed in my head. I bumble, making incoherent small talk. He doesn’t smile or further acknowledge me. He seems uncomfortable. Over the phone he’d already expressed hesitation, repeatedly mentioning his upcoming retirement. In his office, he specifies: “I know what they’re capable of. I cannot risk losing my pension because of this.”

He has reason to fear the wrath of the DCS. In 2001, when he was the head of Grootvlei prison, situated right next door to Mangaung prison, he allowed prisoners to take a camera into the prison with which they recorded warders taking bribes, bringing in guns and physically abusing inmates. Taken as symptomatic of prevailing and widespread corruption in all South Africa’s prisons, the video was leaked to the public broadcaster, the SABC. Setlai was transferred, and the Special Investigating Unit later arrested him on charges of corruption. The charges were dropped when it transpired that the prisoners who had testified against him had done so under duress. No wonder the man has a constipated look about him.

“I heard you wrote a report about Mangaung prison?” I ask.

“Yes, I wrote one,” is all he concedes.

“So, what did you observe while you were working in the prison as a controller?”

“They paid prisoners to write false testimonies, if riots and assaults implicated G4S,” he starts. Then he stops and stares at me, and I feel like he is again reconsidering his decision to speak to me.

“The prisoners who didn’t comply would be sent to Kokstad.”

In South Africa, there are medium- and maximum-security prisons, and then there is one so-called super-maximum correctional facility, the Kokstad Ebongweni Centre of Excellence, in KwaZulu-Natal. This prison, with only single cells, is where “problematic” prisoners are transferred. “At Mangaung, prisoners were placed in Broadway without the correct authorisation from the department or the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services [JICS]. And I documented this and alerted the department in 2009. But they ignored me.”

Setlai speaks in a low voice, with guttural Gs and rolling Rs.

“What goes on in that prison is wrong and corrupt. For example, 90% of the reclassification dates are incorrect,” he says, confirming what I have been hearing from the prisoners and Dan.

Setlai continues speaking, haltingly, but doesn’t give me the report.

By bungling reclassification, Mangaung ensures its beds stay filled, I think as I drive back to Johannesburg on the seemingly endless N1 highway. On both sides of the road, flat yellow fields stretch out all the way to the horizon. Rusty windmills dot the landscape. The surroundings barely change as I drive and I feel hypnotised, as if I’m not moving.

I think about the bloody wars that had been fought in the landscape surrounding me. Wars that had drenched the land in blood long before apartheid had reached the country. The uninteresting fields don’t seem a likely setting for the battles that had taken place here. The Basotho people settled in what is now known as the Free State. The Basotho king, Moshoeshoe, of the Crocodile clan, fought and won battles with the British over the Warden Line, a border between British and Basotho territory. Moshoeshoe did not agree with the Line’s trajectory and he armed his soldiers and gave them horses. Moshoeshoe’s soldiers beat the British army twice, who ultimately decided to retreat and hand over the territory to the Boers.

The Boers reached the Free State when they crossed the Orange River during their Great Trek across the country. More armed battles followed, known as the three Basotho wars (1858-1868). Moshoeshoe lost the land to the Afrikaners in the three consecutive wars.

In the microcosm of the prison, this history feels absent yet alive. On the face of it, it might seem like it is the guards who are pitted against the inmates or the management against the workers. But ultimately what was taking place in Mangaung prison is in many ways racial. Most whites in the prison protect the interests of a British company, whereas most incarcerated and guarding Africans suffer at the hands of the same company.

The sun is dipping lower, spreading an orange glow over the fields, mixing pastel pink splashes into a crisp blue sky. I feel my eyelids drooping, so I exit the highway and stop at a roadside restaurant in a small farming town to grab a cup of coffee. There are embroidered doilies on tables, shelves filled with chutneys, jams, pickles and other homemade products. An Afrikaans radio station burbles in the background. Three dogs run in and out of the place, as an old tannie enters the otherwise empty place to help me.

“Hoe gaan dit?” she asks, not even trying in English. “Het gaan goed,” I try with my Dutch pronunciation, which must sound weird. “Een koffie?” I try. Her facial expression tells me she knows what I mean. She serves me the most disgusting instant coffee I ever had in my life, so I leave her little restaurant a bit disappointed. Outside there is a fruit and vegetable stall, with massive butternuts and watermelons and bags of potatoes. Plastic bottles with ginger beer are stored in a fridge on the stoep. I see the raisins bobbing under the caps.

In 2015, the Free State Agriculture, a farmer representative organisation in the Free State, published a report which indicated that: “93% of the province was used for farming and 86.39% of the agricultural land in the Free State was white owned”. In the Free State, the dorpies I frequent while driving to Bloemfontein or where I end up for interviews with released inmates seem to be stuck in the past in other ways. A hotel I visited still had racially designated entrances and I once entered a bar with a framed old South African flag on the wall.

After our first meeting at the DCS, Setlai continues to be elusive. I keep contacting him, but my calls, voicemails and text messages are ignored, go unanswered. Then, in April 2013, he finally agrees to meet me again. This time he tells me to come to a guesthouse in Kroonstad, a medium-sized town about a two-hour drive from Johannesburg, about halfway between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.

The guesthouse looks deserted. Setlai has a room on the first floor. The door is open, and I walk in. Setlai is sitting on an unmade bed in his DCS uniform. I sit in a chair opposite the bed and take out my notebook, a gesture aimed to expel the intimate sight and smell of an unmade bed in a guesthouse room, with this man sitting opposite me. Setlai doesn’t say much. I wonder if he slept well. Then, he finally hands me a stack of papers, including the report he wrote during his 10-month stint as a controller at Mangaung in 2008 and 2009 and several faxes. My patience has paid off.

Back in Johannesburg, I read through all the documents. Controllers at private prisons are supposed to provide legal oversight. They have to report to the department on a wide array of issues related to prisoners’ rights: healthcare, use of force, requests for transfers and such. As a DCS controller at Mangaung prison, Setlai did what he had done at Grootvlei prison before: he blew the whistle on abuse.

In September 2009, he notifies the deputy prison director Johan Theron of irregularities. “Inmates are segregated [the legal term for isolation or solitary confinement] before the authorisation document is signed, and the notification form that informs prisoners about their rights to appeal, should be attached to the segregation form,” one of the faxes reveals.

According to the Department of Correctional Services Act and the Constitution – the legal framework that governs prison management – isolation is only allowed for an initial period of seven days and can only be extended – to a maximum of 30 days – after a hearing. The inspecting judge needs to be informed as well as the DCS, and a doctor has to examine the isolated prisoner every day. Setlai found these rights had been violated at Mangaung.

Moreover, he writes, isolation is used as punishment, a practice that became illegal after the dark days of apartheid, when political prisoners were held in isolation for years as punishment.

In a message addressed to Tertius du Toit, the G4S compliance manager, Setlai points out that the terms segregation, separation, solitary confinement, security classification and intermediate programme are being used interchangeably at Mangaung, yet they all reference the same thing: solitary confinement. Setlai claims the G4S prison authorities semantically re-categorise the segregation of prisoners, in order to escape the legal prescriptions.

His attempts to address the unlawful isolation of prisoners were not well received. Setlai says G4S investigated him six times in six months for “inciting prisoners to riot” and also reported him to the police for the same crime. “All the allegations made against me by [G4S] are false,” he counters in an affidavit that also indicates his intention to further “blow the whistle about what is happening in Mangaung Correctional Facility”.

He does exactly that in the report he compiles for his employer, the DCS, late in 2010. He titles it “Malfunctioning of private prison: Mangaung Correctional Centre”. Here, he compares Mangaung with Guantanamo Bay, the infamous US military prison that is on Amnesty International’s watchlist for human rights abuses, particularly long detention without trial and torture. He repeats his claim that prisoners are held in isolation unlawfully. “Inmates are placed in single cells without the authorisation of the Head [of prison] for more than three years without informing the DCS or the Inspecting Judge. Inmates are placed on ‘high risk’ category without any explanation,” he writes.

The report names 62 prisoners who had been held in isolation for extended periods, ranging from two weeks to more than three years. Setlai claims that prisoners were locked up in isolation cells in Wolds “for 23 hours a day without any programmes or activities as stipulated in [the DCS] agreement: this is regarded as gross human rights violation and should be reported to head office and Inspecting Judge”.