Nikki Comninos was drawn to the Hollywood-esque story way before she got the green light to direct ‘Tracking Thabo Bester’

Nikki Comninos directs Showmax’s four-part documentary, ‘Tracking Thabo Bester’, produced by IdeaCandy. Picture: Supplied

Nikki Comninos directs Showmax’s four-part documentary, ‘Tracking Thabo Bester’, produced by IdeaCandy. Picture: Supplied

Published Apr 4, 2024


Nikki Comninos, the director of “Tracking Thabo Bester”, was drawn to the story way before she got the green light to helm the four-part documentary.

SA’s real-life “Bonnie and Clyde” saga involving notorious Facebook rapist Thabo Bester and his celebrity doctor girlfriend, Dr Nandipha Magudumana, has had Mzansi transfixed for the past year.

In a recent chat with Comninos, she said: “Like everybody else, I was also struck by the story. I remember reading the January 20 article by ‘GroundUp’, thinking ‘ohmigosh, this story is crazy’ and then following it out of personal curiosity.

“And then, through my relationship with IdeaCandy, I worked as an editor for them for years, we did ‘Devilsdorp’, ‘Steinheist’ and ‘Rosemary’s Hitlist’, and I was starting to direct, which has been so enjoyable.

“Through that working relationship, I got the opportunity to direct this, which felt like a dream come true as I had been personally following the story.”

Her first step was to approach the journalists who broke the story, Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn.

Nikki Comninos directs Showmax’s four-part documentary, ‘Tracking Thabo Bester’. Picture: Supplied

Comninos explained: “From the beginning, I was quite struck by the way ‘GroundUp’ was handling the reporting, and I just felt that they had such integrity already and I was very impressed with the way they handled the story. So, one of the first things we did was partner with ‘GroundUp’.

“Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn came on board as our consultants and that was wonderful. I was able to fact-check things with them as they had done their huge deep investigation.

“Because things were unfolding as we were while working on the project, I just felt it was important to keep a timeline so I wouldn’t have to do it retrospectively if anything had to happen.”

Whenever anything happened with the story in real-time, she jotted it down.

Before the true-life documentary was about to debut on Showmax in mid-March, a last-minute application to stop it from airing was lodged and subsequently dismissed.

Comninos was relieved by the outcome.

“For me, the story touched on so many social issues that we connect with daily as South Africans. So, in episode two, we lean into gender-based violence. I felt like that was also a way, while there is a sensational story there, to address them.

“There is also the issue of his lack of documentation, which is something a lot of South Africans struggle with. Actual citizens struggle with that. I wanted to balance it by unpacking the social issues related to the story.”

Nkosinathi Sekeleni, Magudumana’s elder brother.

For the documentary, she was able to get Interviews with Nkosinathi Sekeleni, Nandipha’s elder brother; the family of Katlego Bereng Mpholo, whose body was found in Cell 35; former SAPS head profiler Dr Gérard Labuschagne, who interviewed Bester after his 2012 arrest for rape and murder; and prisoners and prison warders at Mangaung Correctional Centre, among others.

“We had a list of people we wanted to interview. People did turn us down for all kinds of reasons. But that is part of documentary film-making and I always respect the decision. You must feel secure in your choice to be on camera or else you will have to live with that conflict.

GroundUp award-winning journalist Marecia Damons. Picture: Supplied

“Our objective was not to pressure people. But we did have some incredible people who did say yes.

“The mother of one of the survivors spoke, which I think was incredibly challenging for her, but it was an amazing contribution to the conversation around gender-based violence in this country.

“Nandipa’s brother decided to speak, which was also nice to get somebody who was on the inside. In episode 4, we have Justice (Edwin) Cameron, which was amazing.

In the documentary, Comninos pieces together the events around Bester’s daring jailbreak in the first episode, which is followed by his disturbing past gender-based violence crimes, which led to his lifetime conviction.

GroundUp award-winning journalist Daniel Steyn. Picture: Supplied

Episode three looks at Magudumana's background and her relationship with Bester. In the final episode, the family of Bereng Mpholo open up about the pain of losing a son.

With the director having made her directorial debut with “Convict Conman”, which looked at Dawie de Villiers, another South African running a media business from inside the jail, where he was also serving time for rape, she had a knowledgeable mindset.

“Working on Conrad before, I was in a prison state of mind. Our prisons are in a very bad state for these types of narratives to emerge. It is also hard to regulate with the advances in technology.

“These are challenges that the Department of Correctional Services need to tackle head-on.

“In episode four, we also go into private prisons and government-run prisons and what it is like.”

She said the whistle-blower prisoner seen in episode one had to be moved to another prison for his safety. When he got there, there were no sheets on his bed, so, he had to buy them.

Overall, she says, the documentary, while requiring long hours, was rewarding to make.

“William (Shoki) was incredible to interview. I loved working with Daniel and Marecia and it felt to me a very important story to tell.”

As for what’s next, Comninos said: “I love working on stories that have an anchoring in the world that we live in; something that can give us perspective on the human experience and, more specifically, the Sound African experience.

“We live in a very complex society with a lot of nuances. I appreciate stories that allow us to talk about that stuff.”

∎ “Tracking Thabo Bester” is streaming on Showmax. The trial of Bester, Magudumana and their co-accused resumes in the Free State High Court on June 5.