11 Jul ‘State capture’: the corruption investigation that has shaken South Africa | News
On 17 January this year, South Africans watched, transfixed, as video from a hidden mobile phone camera was broadcast on TV. It showed a group of men, in corporate uniforms, walking into a vault – where one of them counts out bundles of banknotes: “One, two, three, four, five … bloody Monopoly money,” he laughs through heavy breaths, “must be a million.”
The man’s name is Gavin Watson, and the whistleblowers who put this video into the public domain claim it shows him counting out bribes to be paid to officials in the South African government. They have given accounts that implicate cabinet ministers, senior lawmakers and even the prosecutors tasked with investigating the corrupt practices of Watson’s logistics company, Bosasa. The video is the most dramatic evidence yet of corruption within the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
But Watson is not just another fat-cat industrialist accused of trying to make a fast buck by bribing officials: his family were legendary in the anti-apartheid movement. He is the oldest of four brothers from the Eastern Cape province, white men who became heroes to the black majority when they broke apartheid laws to play rugby with black people in 1976. They joined the banned ANC and faced numerous depredations by the apartheid state, including time in jail and assassination attempts.
The youngest brother, Daniel (known as Cheeky), was the most gifted wing player of his generation, who gave up a Springboks blazer for his stand against apartheid. All four brothers left their whites-only teams and went to play for the black league in their home town, Port Elizabeth, one of the only parts of the country where black people as well as white were rugby-mad. In 2012, Cheeky Watson received a state honour for his fearless contribution to non-racial sport.
Watson and his brothers owned a highly successful chain of menswear shops, aimed at black buyers. As white people with resources, they provided invaluable support to their black ANC comrades in the Eastern Cape. At a time when many freedom fighters espoused a racially exclusive “black consciousness” agenda, they also helped set the ANC’s non-racial policies in motion on the sportsfield.
After the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990, the Watson brothers became powerbrokers in both politics and business. They set up companies, fronted by black owners and managers, that obtained shares in mining companies and contracts from the state. “Black economic empowerment” (or BEE) is the state’s primary means of economic redistribution, an affirmative-action plan stipulating that anyone wishing to do business with the state has to have a certain quota of black ownership and management. On paper, Gavin Watson’s company, Bosasa, was majority black-owned; as such, it garnered contracts worth $140m from the state between 2000 and 2016, from prison catering to fleet management and information technology.
According to the testimony of four whistleblowers, all former Bosasa executives, around $5m was paid in bribes to secure these contracts. They allege an industrial-scale operation that generated cash through money laundering and then distributed it to buy influence, secure contracts and prevent prosecution. They have described cash stuffed into Louis Vuitton handbags as gifts, or handed over in monthly instalments on the sides of highways. State officials received cars and houses; free security equipment and school fees for their children – even monthly meat supplies.
Jacob Zuma, the former president, has been named in testimony as allegedly receiving gifts from Watson and playing a role in stopping the prosecution of his company, which first came under investigation in 2007. And even Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president, elected on the promise that he would sweep away corruption, unwittingly accepted a donation from Watson to help him in his campaign to unseat Zuma; Bosasa also paid Ramaphosa’s son Andile a consulting fee for “advisory services”.
Black economic empowerment aims to give black people a greater share of an economy still overwhelmingly owned by whites. But the evidence given to the inquiry against Gavin Watson and Bosasa suggests how easily manipulated it can be: the accusation against Watson is that he and his colleagues have abused the system to line their own pockets, and have “captured” the organs of state to do so.
“State capture” has become a buzzword in South Africa. It describes the way private individuals and companies have commandeered organs of state to redirect public resources into their own hands, and have gutted those institutions responsible for protecting the country against such corruption. These include the police, the prosecution authority, the tax collection service and even parliament itself.
If the whistleblowers’ evidence is correct, Bosasa was a textbook case of state capture. They presented the vault video, along with a blizzard of documents and allegations, at South Africa’s independent judicial inquiry into allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector, chaired by the country’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo. Zondo began public hearings last August, and they are expected to continue, almost daily, until the end of this year. The state capture commission, as it is known, has been described as a truth and reconciliation commission for our times. Its aim is to cleanse post-apartheid South Africa of its darkest stain, just as Desmond Tutu sought to bring about a healthy transition into the new era by exposing the apartheid years’ gross violations of human rights.
The commission’s primary target is the kleptocracy that established itself around the former president Jacob Zuma, and particularly the dealings of another band of brothers, the Guptas, who allegedly ran Zuma’s government as a private piggy-bank. Zuma himself will finally appear before Zondo next week: he is scheduled to be in the witness box for five days, answering questions primarily about his relationship with the Guptas and the decisions that arose out of this. But he is expected to address the allegations about Bosasa and Gavin Watson, too.
Gavin Watson has declined to make any public comment since the allegations, but his brother Valence told me: “Our constitutional rights have been trampled upon.” Valence claims that his family are victims of a “dark state” conspiracy today, just as they were under apartheid. He claims that the commission is illegal, in that it has not offered those implicated by the whistleblowers a fair hearing.
Although the whistleblowers have implicated all four brothers in their testimony before the commission, only Gavin is directly linked to Bosasa. On the basis of the tax-evasion allegations put before the commission, Gavin is now being investigated by the South African Revenue Service. And in an unrelated case, a high court has found him to have “acted dishonestly and reprehensibly” in a mining deal, by taking shares allocated to a “black economic empowerment entity and appropriating them to himself and his family”.
The whistleblowers’ testimony sketches one of the most troubling dynamics of post-apartheid South Africa: as some freedom fighters went into politics and others went into business, support networks morphed into patronage networks, which in turn became criminal syndicates.
The Watson brothers were such celebrities in the 1980s that there was even a TV series about them in the works. In a world where rugby was “next to God”, John Pilger wrote in an introduction to a 1997 book about them, they “embodied almost everything that white South African men liked about their breed: they were physically brave … men’s men. Even their Christianity fitted the mould. But their manliness and their faith embraced a universal humanity and morality that was the antithesis of this stereotype.”
Television only came to South Africa in 1975, and at the time the Watsons were making news for their stand, the country was obsessed with Dallas, the Texas oil saga that centred on the Ewing family. “They were just like the Ewings,” the former journalist Cate Turner, who fell into their orbit, said to me. “I was starstruck. The Herald had them on the front page every other day: these compelling, good-looking guys and their wives with big hair and shoulder pads.”
While Cheeky managed black rugby teams and Gavin ran the family business, the other two brothers, Ronnie and Valence, became underground operatives of the ANC. Ronnie, Valence and Cheeky spent four months in jail after they were charged with burning down their grand family home in an insurance fraud. They insisted the state had framed them, and were eventually acquitted. Their chain of stores, Dan Watson American Imports, had been phenomenally successful, but they went bankrupt shortly after the trial. It took them several years, after the fall of apartheid, to re-establish themselves as BEE entrepreneurs – and to bring many of their old comrades with them, into the business world.
Recently, on a visit to Port Elizabeth, I met one of their former comrades, Mike Xego, a former political prisoner who is now a businessman. He drives a Mercedes with the plates “Mr X”, a moniker he also has stitched on to a necktie that is almost as broad as his language. “You must understand, black people are fucking poor,” he exploded, when I asked him why corruption had become so rife in South Africa. “Our ambitions! We wanted to be proper human beings, with bank accounts and a tie. We thought we would be strutting up and down the streets. Then things really crumbled. It didn’t go well for most of us. We remained where we were.”
South Africa was recently declared by the World Bank to be the world’s most unequal country. In the boom years after the 1994 transition away from apartheid, if you were fortunate enough to be politically connected, you could soar into the stratosphere of the very wealthy via canny partnerships with white capitalists. This was Cyril Ramaphosa’s route. But, many black people were unable to access these opportunities, writes the South African sociologist Karl von Holdt, “because of political gatekeeping or because they lacked the capital or the skills”. And so “an alternative, informal political-economic system” emerged, through which “networks of state officials, ambitious entrepreneurs and small-time operators, were rigging tenders or engaging in other kinds of fraud … to sustain or establish businesses, or simply to finance self-enrichment”. Von Holdt argues that for some South Africans, criminality has become the route to class mobility.
Of course, white South Africans had accumulated their wealth through their own affirmative-action programmes – job reservation for whites – and alliances with the state. Now, post-apartheid, BEE had two distinct, legitimate arms: the private sector handed over some of its assets to players like Ramaphosa in return for political access and government work, and the state set race quotas for public sector contracts and mining licences.
The entrepreneurial – white – Watson brothers, seeing how they could parlay their political networks into deals, went down both tracks. Gavin built Bosasa, a company initially founded by leaders of the ANC Women’s League, to gain a foothold in the economy through government business. His younger brothers Valence and Ronnie went into the mining sector, working with a controversial family who bankrolled the ANC Youth League, and bought up marginal goldmines that the big players were getting ready to shut down.
To find partners in these ventures, the brothers dug into their political hinterland: they recruited former comrades from ANC intelligence, rugby buddies from the black leagues, Eastern Cape activists. Gavin and Valence gave a major stake in their own companies to a man everyone calls “the fifth brother”, Archie Mkele, a black rugby legend they befriended when they crossed over to the black league. Mkele was severely burned in the Watsons’ 1986 fire, and then tortured into a confession that he had torched the house for his friends as part of the alleged insurance scam; in court, he refused to testify against them. The other suspect, another black rugby mate, turned state witness, but was discharged after evidence emerged that he, too, had been tortured.
Bosasa’s other major black shareholder is Mkele’s ex-wife, Carol, the sole beneficiary of a “women’s investments” trust. On paper, the Mkeles are very rich indeed, but they lead modest lives in Port Elizabeth: Carol – now named Muneira Oliveria – has a mid-level management job at Bosasa; Archie is a priest. The whistleblowers allege in their testimony to the inquiry that the Mkeles’ investment trusts are fronts for Gavin Watson’s own family.
Several of the Watsons’ other BEE partners became part of the country’s new political elite; there was a revolving door, in these first years of the new government, between political appointments and BEE entrepreneurs. “The minute you have a system where people make money just by the connections they have, rather than the work that they do, the system is ripe for abuse,” says the political economist Moeletsi Mbeki, long a staunch critic of BEE. “It’s a recipe for corruption.”
There have been two other important paths to prosperity for black people during the democratic era: through the professions (the universities have deracialised, dramatically), and through employment in public service, due to affirmative-action policies. In 1990, when the ANC was unbanned, there was a tiny number of black people who could be called middle-class: teachers, nurses, other officials and some entrepreneurs. Three decades later, black people constitute at least 50% of the middle class, even though whites remain significantly richer.
But a perfect storm was brewing: the aspirations that accompanied democracy were maturing at the same time as South Africa’s post-apartheid growth spurt slowed down, and the economy slumped after the global crash of 2008. As unemployment became more severe, public-service salaries and social welfare grants had to feed an increasing number of people. And as the cost of living soared, it became harder for many people to keep a foothold in the middle class: paying off the mortgage on your home; keeping your kids in private schools.
Central to this political economy is the ANC itself, which makes key appointments, from a local to a national level, except in those few parts of the country where it is no longer in power. The party subsists on donations, and there have been allegations that votes for leadership positions are for sale. There are no controls over campaign financing in South Africa, and so an operation like Bosasa can work on two levels: underground, through bribery, and above board, through making high-profile donations to the party, or running and staffing – as Bosasa did – huge campaign “war rooms” for the ANC out of its head office.
“It is impossible to quantify the level of corruption in South Africa,” David Lewis of Corruption Watch, the South African chapter of Transparency International, told me, “but everyone accepts a perception, which is often the only way you make a judgment, that bribery in order to procure public contracts is ubiquitous.”
A young business colleague of Mike Xego’s had accompanied him to our meeting, and when “Mr X” jumped up to take a phone call, I struck up a conversation with this man. He was trying to make a go of it, he told me, bringing potatoes from farms to market in his truck, and carrying fuel back. “But the problem is capital.” He had begun his business by bidding for state tenders, and received a sub-contract helping to build a road in his home township. But as soon as he made enough money to buy his truck, he got out of there.
Why did he leave if he was doing so well there, I asked, and if state contracts could build his capital base?
“I’m a Christian, sir. And if you tenderise [live off state tenders], you bribe.”
Judge Raymond Zondo is a mild and ponderous man in his late 50s who runs his commission with a sometimes-exasperating deliberateness. After viewing the video of Gavin Watson counting out those bundles of banknotes in the vault, he asked his witness – former Bosasa executive Angelo Agrizzi – what Watson had meant by referring to the cash as “monopoly money”.
Agrizzi, a white South African of Italian extraction, had been Watson’s right-hand man at Bosasa. A character of operatic proportions and temperament, he spent a full 11 days in the witness box. He told the judge that when he asked Watson that very question, his former boss had replied: “One, it is just monopoly money, so we can get the monopoly [of state business], and two … because it is just playing money. You are playing with people.” Some of the banknotes, Agrizzi claimed, were sweeteners for himself and other Bosasa employees. “It kind of buys loyalty,” Agrizzi explained. “You feel important. You [get] caught up in a cult … It is a trap, like bribery is a trap, because you raise your standard of living.”
Agrizzi told the judge that he had experienced a Damascene conversion after surviving a heart tumour. The Watson camp suggests, with evidence, that he was trying to blackmail Gavin Watson. Agrizzi, in turn, claims Watson was going to throw him under the bus, and so he acted pre-emptively. Certainly, Agrizzi appears to have accumulated evidence, perhaps as insurance. He kept meticulous coded records: of the transfer of orders of “chicken”, or of “bread” in and out of the “oven”, as the vault was known – in what he liked to call his “little black books”, personalised and gold-embossed from Smythson in London. Even the state capture commission’s own secretary, a senior justice department official named Khotso De Wee, was to be found in these books, and had to be put on special leave by Zondo. De Wee has denied the allegations.
Two characters were inscribed every month into Agrizzi’s dirty little ledger as “Snake” and “Snail”. Agrizzi told the commission that these were Nomgcobo Jiba, the deputy national director of public prosecutions and Lawrence Mrwebi, who headed a unit of the prosecuting authority that had, in fact, been investigating Bosasa since 2010. Agrizzi’s testimony suggested why, almost a decade later, no one had yet been charged: in his account, Jiba and Mrwebi were paid off to obstruct the prosecution – and even to advise the accused on how to circumvent the charges.
Both Mrwebi and Jiba have denied Agrizzi’s allegations, and claim they never received money from Bosasa. In April, they were fired by Cyril Ramaphosa, on the basis of another judicial commission that found they had brought the agency into disrepute: not over Bosasa, but other matters that had to do with protecting Jacob Zuma and his cronies from charges of corruption.
Shortly after Agrizzi made his revelations before the commission in January this year, the National Prosecuting Authority snapped into gear under a new boss. Although the state capture commission offers protection from self-incrimination, prosecutors used the charge sheet that had been gathering dust at the agency to arrest Agrizzi and two other Bosasa whistleblowers, as well as two prison officials.
One of Agrizzi’s co-accused is a man named Linda Mti, an ex-ANC military commander who was the head of security at the 2010 South Africa World Cup and, before that, the country’s prisons commissioner. Hard-driving and charismatic, Mti is still known by his nom de guerre, “Richman”. He likes to tell the story of how, one day in 1980, while he was working out of the neighbouring country of Lesotho, two conservatively dressed young white men were brought to see him. His mother had joked that he might live to see the day that he could tell a white man what to do, and “now I’ve got two. My whiteboys!”
The men were Ronnie and Valence Watson, and they had come to Lesotho at the behest of Chris Hani – the legendary ANC leader, who was later assassinated – smuggling forged documents across the border in their big white Mercedes. Mti became their handler, and in the years that followed, the Watson boys shuttled fleeing activists across the same border, along with intelligence reports about what was happening back home. Both Mti and Hani became close personal friends of the Watsons.
When, in 1987, an attempt was made on Ronnie Watson’s life in a hotel room in Botswana, it was Richman Mti who came running to his aid. Three years later, when the last white president, FW de Klerk, unexpectedly unbanned the liberation movements and Mti came back to Port Elizabeth, his hometown, he had nowhere to live. Valence Watson put him up, and he lived there for many months. Mti was elected the first ANC chair of the region; the brothers became his fixers and advisers. (Mti declined to speak to me for this story.)
Mti became prisons commissioner in 2001, a year after Gavin Watson bought Bosasa: the company provided catering for mine hostels, and ran two detention centres, one for illegal immigrants and one for juvenile offenders. Watson was ready to expand. His man was in place.
The state had never previously outsourced its prisons contracts, but inspired by the success of British companies such as G4S and Serco, Bosasa made a pitch to Mti and another senior prison official, Patrick Gillingham, for all the catering contracts in the country’s prisons. According to testimony given to the inquiry and the charge sheet, both men conspired to award Bosasa the prison catering contracts, for which they received lucrative kickbacks, in cash and in kind.
A senior career official in the apartheid-era prisons service, Gillingham would have been a strong candidate for prisons commissioner were it not for the timing of the transition to democracy, and the ANC’s affirmative-action policies: he is white. When Agrizzi was trying to explain how he, too, became corrupt while working for Bosasa, he told Zondo: “We were constantly told that we were white males and that you will not find a job anywhere out there … This was drummed into our heads.” Similar statements were made by the other whistleblowers, all white men too. I have seen a video in which Watson does, indeed, emphasise to his white staff their unemployability in a changing South Africa.
And so, according to the testimony before the state capture commission, Watson played race two ways. He offered his black collaborators a quicker route to self-enrichment than might otherwise be available to them, and his white ones a solution from the impoverishment they imagined might befall them, now that black South Africans were in the ascendant.
When Mike “Mr X” Xego was released from five years in jail on Robben Island in 1982, he was 22 and had no clothes; his mother, a domestic worker, could not help. “Go to the Watsons!” he was told. “They will make you look good.” Even before they became rugby heroes, the brothers were renowned in Port Elizabeth’s black community for their shop, which sold the kind of American fashion beloved by urban black South Africans. Most of the customers were black, but white people shopped there too, meaning it was one of the few mixed spaces in the city, a free zone for black people, and a safe space for activists. With their resources, the Watsons did what they could, setting up a makeshift clinic in the storeroom and tending to comrades injured in protests; photocopying banned literature; gifting clothes to released prisoners like Xego or returned exiles like Richman Mti.
Xego acquired his first wardrobe – on credit, with no interest – from the Watsons. A few weeks later, all four brothers showed up in their Mercedes at his tiny township home and sat down to tea with his mother, winning her over with the fluent Xhosa they had learned growing up on an Eastern Cape farm. They wrote off his debt.
But not all activists were comfortable with the Watsons’ role. Released alongside Xego in 1982 was another youth activist, Saki Macozoma, who would later become one of the country’s most successful black businessmen. Back then, he too was directed to the Watson shop. “I said: ‘I don’t like being given things, particularly from white people.’ I’d been on [Robben] Island for five years, and I knew that in politics, what you received in one hand you paid with the other.”
Port Elizabeth had always been the heart of the freedom struggle and it was here, after the apartheid president PW Botha declared his state of emergency in 1985, that a nationwide consumer boycott of white businesses was most successful. What to do with the Watsons, though?
At first they were exempt, but the boycott leaders insisted that they needed to be included: it would be too easy for other retailers to superficially imitate the Watson packaging. Worse yet, vigilantes were enforcing the boycott with violence. If people were found breaking the boycott by coming home from the shops with detergent, for example, they would often be forced to drink it. The only way people could be safe, the leaders insisted, was if the boycott was a blanket one. Others disagreed fervently: “To us the Watsons were not whites,” their friend Max Mamase told the Australian journalist Kristin Williamson. “They were part of us. But a few key people felt the Watsons were making money out of the boycott.”
The brothers had huge appeal among black people in the region, but they were always controversial among activists – not just because some were sceptical about working with white people, or what their motives might be, but because their resources seemed to give them a sense of ownership of the movement. It was unclear whether the people they supported were their comrades, friends or their clients. “The Watsons were one of the ‘great houses’ of the struggle,” the former activist Mkhuseli Jack said to me. “There were black ones too, I must say. Once you were in [allied to] one of these ‘houses’, you did their bidding.”
This was significant because of the factionalism in the struggle. You could tarnish your competitors with the slur that they were agents or informers. Ronnie Watson in particular was the master of this game: he had a favourite Xhosa word he would hiss under his breath about anyone who disagreed with him: inywagi – the genet, a small, wily wild cat that struck its prey with lightning speed. “Black or white, we were all spies to them,” Jack told me.
The brothers stayed away from the above-ground movement, which was launched in 1983 as the United Democratic Front. When the journalist Gavin Evans set up a UDF affiliate with two other white activists, “they were very threatened,” Evans told me. “They liked to be the only white activists in the village. In various ways, they spread spy rumours about all three of us.”
The journalist Cate Turner remembers the kitchen-table lectures the brothers offered up at her commune, which they often visited: “They claimed socialism was about the raising of standards for everyone, not the lowering for some. They often spoke about how self-enrichment was not at odds with socialist ideals. When I look back at it now [from the perspective of the Bosasa allegations], it was almost as if they were setting themselves up for this trajectory they are now on.”
Obviously, Gavin Watson did not clothe people like Richman Mti in the 1980s in anticipation of a future lucrative relationship: no one could have predicted, back then, how quickly apartheid would fall and a new elite would establish itself. But the testimony before the state capture commission suggests a slippery slope: from comradely support into patronage and – in some cases – corruption.
In this way, the Watson brothers are reminiscent of another famous struggle family, the Shaiks. The sons of an Indian trader from Durban, the Shaik brothers were deeply committed freedom fighters, and were often detained and even tortured. They answered directly to Jacob Zuma in exile, and they provided both intelligence and resources to the movement.
The ANC’s leaders – in jail or in exile – had not a penny to their name, but were expected to take their seats at the negotiating table after their release or return after 1990, and talk themselves into power. Even Nelson Mandela was dependent on the largesse of local businessmen when he came out of jail, supported primarily by a brash insurance magnate named Douw Steyn (although there was no suggestion of an illegal relationship). Richman Mti had the Watsons. And Jacob Zuma had the Shaiks.
Schabir Shaik bribed Zuma to get a piece of a multibillion dollar arms deal that South Africa signed with French and German companies in the mid-1990s. Shaik went to jail in 2005, and the reason Zuma is free is because a judge accepted testimony that the charges against him were tainted by political interference. This ruling was finally overturned on appeal in 2018, and the charges were reinstated: the former South African president may yet find himself behind bars.
In an image-laundering exercise, Bosasa changed its name to African Global Operations in 2016. Its headquarters are a sprawling campus in a nondescript suburb west of Johannesburg. In its heyday the campus had wildlife roaming around it, a mini golf course, the Watson Corporate University, an evangelical publishing company and a wellness centre. Since the allegations made at the state capture commission earlier this year, the company has lost most of its business and gone into liquidation: most of its staff have been retrenched and its banks have refused to do business with it. Most of the campus’ buildings are dark, and it now has an unkempt air at odds with the regimental Watson style.
Gavin Watson liked to call Bosasa a “Kingdom company”: he ran it with a kind of entrepreneurial evangelism. All staff were required to wear smart uniforms, and Watson conducted prayer meetings and offered communion every morning between 6am and 8am. A popular public speaker on behavioural science who ran the wellness centre for over a decade, Denise Bjorkman, says that Bosasa was “a cultish environment” with Watson its domineering leader, and that his “control mechanisms extended into prayer”, as staff members felt compelled to attend if they wished to be in favour. “Attendees had to pray out loud as he believed that if they did so he would know what they were thinking,” Bjorkman says.
Gavin Watson declined to speak to me, but his close friend Kevin Wakeford agreed to do so. Wakeford is on Bosasa’s books as a consultant, and also implicated by Agrizzi’s testimony at the state capture commission; he describes Agrizzi’s allegations against him as “malicious” fabrication, and dismisses both the corruption allegations and character profile of Gavin Watson that have been put into the public domain. He points, specifically, to the many black directors and managers in the company: “The optics were so good! The [BEE] balance scorecard, the work ethic … the broad span of involvement across the company. Whenever you saw their staff, they were courteous and efficient.” The campaign against Bosasa had “shut down a company that really showed you can be Afrocentric and still be an international benchmark,” he said.
In April this year, Valence Watson agreed to spend a day with me, first in the Port Elizabeth offices of his lawyers, and then showing me Royalston, the magnificent “coastal wildlife residential estate” he is developing outside the city. He is known to be the most affable of the four bluff brothers: he was good company, despite the difficult conversation.
Valence explained the family ethos to me, and how it was rooted in both enterprise and Christianity. His farming parents, descendants of hardy Scots settler stock, also ran trading stores, and there were two biblical precepts that governed their lives: “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “Earn your money by the sweat of your brow”. For the Watsons, “everyone’s money was the same colour”, and the first time he realised it was different elsewhere was when he noticed a wall in the local butchers, dividing black and white shoppers.
Although all four brothers are implicated by the whistleblowers at the state capture commission, Valence insisted to me that they had no relationship with their brother Gavin’s company; Ronnie said the same thing, in a written response to questions. (Cheeky declined to talk to me.) There is, indeed, no evidence that they were directly involved in corruption, except for Agrizzi’s allegation that he saw Valence bribing a senior parliamentarian named Cedric Frolick on behalf of Bosasa. Valence dismissed this charge to me as a lie.
Still, everyone who knows the Watson family notes the way the brothers band together, particularly in times of trouble. Perhaps because of the way they were once isolated by other whites as kaffirboeties (“nigger-lovers”) and then targeted by the authorities, they tend to close ranks and keep to themselves, and in my own dealings with them – perhaps exacerbated by their current embattled status – I experienced their notorious “us-versus-the-world” paranoia.
Ronnie wrote to me that he was convinced the state capture commission was a continuation of the old ways of the state: “What the apartheid regime did through torture, death squads and the barrel of the gun,” he said, “the Zondo commission and the banks [by closing Bosasa’s and Gavin’s accounts] are achieving without even firing a shot. Stratcom is alive and well within the Zondo commission.”
“Stratcom” is short for “Strategic Communications”, the apartheid security forces’ notorious dirty tricks department, which sought to discredit key apartheid activists. (Stratcom may have been responsible, for example, for burning down the Watson house and then manufacturing documents to make it look like an insurance scam.) When I asked Valence who might be behind such a plot, today, he suggested that Agrizzi and the whistleblowers were in cahoots with the opposition Democratic Alliance, in an attempt to discredit the ANC before the country’s May elections, in which the party was re-elected, but with its lowest majority yet.
Presumably on the basis of the Bosasa allegations, Cyril Ramaphosa dropped at least one implicated cabinet minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, a close Zuma associate who was allegedly at the heart of the Bosasa syndicate, and Watson’s primary beneficiary. Mokonyane has called the allegations untrue, and announced her intention to defend herself before the commission. Ramaphosa has also apologised for the error in judgment in having accepted funds from Watson, given that Bosasa was under investigation. Still, he now finds himself under investigation too, by an antagonistic public protector (a statutory ombudsman of sorts) who believes that he wilfully misled parliament, and might even be guilty of money-laundering through his campaign fundraising.
The public protector’s name is Busisiwe Mkhwebane. So aggressively has she gone after Ramaphosa and his major anti-corruption ally, the state enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, that many South Africans believe she is doing the bidding of the Zuma kleptocrats swept from office by Ramaphosa – allegations that Mkhwebane says are “unfair” and “without basis”. Meanwhile, Zuma will appear before Zondo next week, against his will. In a letter leaked to the press, his lawyer has slammed the commission as seeking its “own truth” and wishing “to deliver our client … for public display and in order to ambush and humiliate him”.
After the vault video, the most sensational piece of testimony Angelo Agrizzi submitted to the state capture commission was a secretly recorded audio file from 2016, in which we hear Gavin Watson coaching Richman Mti about what to say to Jacob Zuma, then still president, in an upcoming meeting. “Now Mr President, you need to close this thing [the investigation into Bosasa] down. We need the right person in the right place.”
The allegations against Bosasa and Gavin Watson are by no means the only ones that have been made before Zondo, or even the most damning, in terms of “state capture”. But they are the most detailed. The way the South African authorities act on them will be a litmus test of whether they are, finally, freed from their “capture” during the dark second act – the Zuma years – of the South African democracy.