24 March 2023
Convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester was running a multi-million rand scam business while serving a life sentence for rape and murder at Mangaung Correctional Centre.
Bester posed as the “chairman” of 21st Century Media, a scam event and production company, which was made to look like a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox.
21st Century Media became the subject of a social media storm in 2018 for promoting a “Women in Media” conference with Hollywood A-listers as guest speakers, which turned out to be a scam.
GroundUp has pictures and video footage of the glitzy launch of 21st Century Media in 2018, held at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton. The event was attended by members of Johannesburg’s high society, including celebrities Amanda Du Pont and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
Attendees were told that the chairman of the company, “Tom Motsepe”, would video call in from New York. But unbeknown to the audience, the man appearing on the big screen was actually convicted rapist and murderer Thabo Bester, speaking from prison.
Bester appears in front of a white wall wearing a suit and designer watch. A highlights video, made after the event, contains a clip of the audience singing happy birthday to “Tom”. The date of the conference was 13 June 2018. Thabo Bester was born on 13 June.
At the time of the event, Bester was serving a life sentence at Mangaung Correctional Center, a private maximum security prison operated by multinational company G4S.
GroundUp published compelling evidence last week that Bester faked his death in a cell fire and escaped from prison in May 2022. There are also indications that he has been running a new business with celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana.
Thabo Bester has used aliases throughout his criminal career. While running 21st Century Media, he was known as “Tom Motsepe” and claimed to be related to businessman Patrice Motsepe.
GroundUp spoke to several former employees of 21st Century Media. They said that “Tom” was hands-on in the company’s operations and would send money whenever it was needed. Everyone was acting under direct instructions from “Tom”.
According to former employees, he was able to persuade people to quit their jobs at established media houses to join the company. He had researched the industry well and senior members of the media knew about him, one former employee told GroundUp.
Recruits of 21st Century Media were led to believe they would be working with an industry-leading company. “Tom” introduced himself to them as an executive of 21st Century Fox and Sky Digital.
A Twitter account for “Tom Motsepe” contains photos of Bester’s face edited onto other people’s bodies. In one picture, his face is edited onto American actor Michael B. Jordan’s body.
An archived copy of tommotsepe.com shows Bester wearing the same outfit he wore on the night of the company launch. The website contains several blog posts on business management.
Bester had invented an extensive backstory for “Tom”. A Board of Directors document for another of his companies, 21st Century Group, includes a profile that describes “Tom” as a “South African investment strategist magnate”, a “progressive and innovative businessman”, and a “thought leader” with “sound knowledge of how to operate a successful global brand”.
“Tom”, the profile claims, holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Management from the University of Cape Town and a Bachelor’s Degree in Investment and Securities from Harvard University.
The profile lists several companies started by “Tom”, including “the world’s largest promotion company” which he started at the age of 21. It also says that he specialises in mining, investment and media.
According to the profile, “Tom” owned 33.5% of Viacom, 12.9% of 20th Century Fox and “went on to occupy” UBS Financial Services in Switzerland. (This is all ludicrous of course.)
21st Century Media (Pty) Ltd was registered as a company with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission in 2018. The sole director was Phumudzo Thenga. Thenga was also the sole director of 11 other registered companies with names similar to well-known international companies. All of them, including 21st Century Media, have since been deregistered.
Companies registered by Thenga include “UBS Group” (the same name as a giant financial services firm), “United Talent Agency” (the same name as one of the biggest international casting agencies) and “Black Phoenix Digital” (the same name as a UK-based PR company).
Thenga was also the sole director of “TM Financials”, which one former employee told us stood for “Tom Motsepe Financials” and shared offices with 21st Century Media.
Another was “Sky Digital”, the logo of which was displayed on a banner at the 21st Century Media launch event and bore a striking resemblance to the logo of the UK-based television network Sky News. The logos for 21st Century Media and 21st Century Group displayed on the banner were also very similar to those of their real counterpart.
Promotion social media posts for the “Women in Media” conference include a logo for “UBS Group”, which is almost identical to the logo of the Swiss investment giant UBS.
According to former employees, Thenga was the CEO of the company but was very rarely at the office. A full-time “Managing Director” ran daily operations and “Tom” would give direct instructions to employees.
“Tom” was supposedly based in New York, so there was always a time zone difference. It is possible that it was easier for Bester to have private access to a phone, laptop, and internet at night time.
The company had luxurious offices in Sandton and more than 30 employees. Employees were apparently given brand-new laptops. One former employee told us that there did not seem to be any real strategy or business plan; money would always be available.
Several television productions were supposedly being worked on but they were never filmed. The company even held auditions for the shows, which were attended by several famous South African actors, the former employees told us.
21st Century Media made headlines in 2018 after advertising a “Women in Media” conference which turned out to be a scam. Tickets were sold for R1,250 each and Hollywood A-listers Halle Berry and Taraji P. Henson were advertised as guest speakers.
But when Berry and Henson publicly distanced themselves from the event, a media outcry followed and the event was cancelled.
The “Women in Media” saga was the beginning of the end for 21st Century Media, former employees told us. They had lost all credibility as a company and were even faced with legal action by the real 21st Century Fox.
South African media personality Bonang Matheba was set to host the “Women in Media” event but backed out after it emerged that Berry and Henson would not be participating.
According to the event’s promotional posters, M-Net channel 1Magic was the official media partner for the event. M-Net did not respond to GroundUp’s questions. At the time of the event, M-Net declined to answer questions from the media.
The promotional posters also contained links to addresses in London and New York. The New York address appears to be that of 21st Century Fox.
After it emerged that Henson was not aware of the event, 21st Century Media issued a statement denying that they had falsely advertised the event.
The company said that the conference was intended to “build leadership and women empowerment in Africa”. It called it a non-profit initiative funded by 21st Century Group “as a means of giving back to women in Africa”.
In a subsequent statement, the company expressed disappointment with Berry and Henson for “withdrawing” from the event and said that legal action was being taken against the agencies through whom they had booked the guest speakers. The company said the event would go ahead but would be by invitation only.
Former employees told GroundUp that they were under the impression that the event was real.
They were told that contracts were being signed with the guest speakers and deposits were paid for local celebrities and venue hire.
GroundUp understands that the event never took place. Former employees told us that soon after the media storm, rumours started circulating in the office that 21st Century Media was going to shut down.
But even after this debacle, the company apparently signed a lease for an additional floor of office space in Sandton, which stood empty for about six months.
The former employees said that although they got paid their monthly salaries, they later found out that tax and unemployment insurance were deducted from their salaries but never transferred to SARS and the Department of Labour.
The former employees who spoke to GroundUp said that they all had moments where they became suspicious about who “Tom” really is, but never really gave it much thought. It was only years after, upon seeing our reports on Bester’s escape, that they joined the dots.
“They ruined so many lives,” said one employee, who quit her job to join the company. Almost four years after the “Women in Media” debacle, she has not been able to find another job.
Phumudzo Thenga, the sole director of 21st Century Media, describes herself as a “serial entrepreneur” on her LinkedIn Page. After 21st Century Media shut its doors, Thenga started a new group of companies called Lwendo.
At first, Lwendo offered media services but it now focuses on minerals and resources. According to Lwendo’s website, the company provides a variety of services including supplying and transporting fuel and coal. They also provide office stationery and IT services. The website claims that the company’s clients include Eskom, Exxaro, and Emfuleni Municipality.
Thenga’s companies have a track record of bidding on tenders. We have found numerous instances of unsuccessful tenders they have applied for, from office stationery to diesel.
Lwendo Minerals was recently told by police to evacuate a residential property in Johannesburg. The company was illegally parking fuel tankers on the property.
Thenga is married to a senior official in Ekurhuleni Municipality. He is a director of one of her companies, Lovebirds Transport, and was a director of Lwendo Foods.
We asked Thenga for comment via email. She first responded that she believed she had been scammed and arranged to meet us via video call. But shortly before our scheduled meeting, she emailed us to say that on legal advice, she would not attend the meeting.
We gave her another opportunity to respond to questions but received no response.
According to the Correctional Services Act, sentenced offenders are not allowed to work or conduct business “on their own account”.
But illicit businesses run from prison are not uncommon in South Africa. The illicit trade of cell phones and drugs, often aided by prison officials, is a known problem.
Nonetheless, it is troubling that an inmate serving a life sentence from a maximum security prison and the second-largest private prison in the world was able to run such an elaborate business from behind bars. It is astounding that a convicted violent sex offender should have free access to the internet. It is weird that he had access to a suit.
Inmates at Mangaung Correctional Center who spoke to GroundUp (on unlawfully-traded cell phones) said that it would have been relatively easy for Bester to obtain a cell phone.
Laptops were allowed in the prison for inmates who were studying. GroundUp has previously reported that, according to Magudumana, Bester was studying through Damelin.
But for Bester to run this type of business - and to escape from prison later - he would have had to have the support of officials working at the prison.
We spoke on the phone to Stephan Page and Gert Beyleveld, head of HR and audit respectively at Mangaung Correctional Center. Both declined to comment. Beyleveld said that a lawyer is being consulted on how to answer our questions on the matter.
At the time of publication, G4S’s communications team had not responded to our enquiries.
In response to our questions, Department of Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo told GroundUp that the investigation is ongoing and “we are therefore unable to extract particular elements at this stage”.
“Once again, we are appealing that we are allowed to conclude the investigation and provide a conclusive report,” he said.
Brigadier Motantsi Makhele of the South African Police Service, again told us that their investigation had reached “a very critical stage” and that it “won’t be in the interest of justice to give any comment now as advised by the investigating team”.
Magudumana’s lawyer appears to have stopped responding to our requests for comments.