Adriaan Basson | In life and death: The meaning of Gavin Watson

2019-08-29 16:57
Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson. (File)

Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson. (File)

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Until the ANC has found a way of shaming the likes of Yengeni, Watson, Shaik and Selebi without diminishing their role as freedom fighters, any government efforts or policies to curb corruption will ring hollow, writes Adriaan Basson.

Comrade or crook?

Philanthropist or philanderer?

The untimely and mysterious death of Bosasa boss Gavin Watson has challenged the ANC and the South African society at large to confront the complexity of our past and the precariousness of the present.

Much has been said, in the wake of Watson's freakish death on Monday morning on his way to OR Tambo International Airport, about the legacy of the man who led Bosasa - a company now synonymous with bribery, fraud and state capture.

The least-known of the Watson brothers from Port Elizabeth has become a divisive figure, even in death.

On radio talk shows, he is either lauded as a struggle hero or described as the biggest of crooks.

We struggle to reconcile the possibility that Watson wasn't always just good or just bad. The ANC, in particular, has not provided guidance or leadership through their statement that completely ignores Watson's corruption and depravity.

We saw the same reaction from the governing party when Tony Yengeni went to prison; and with the conviction of Jackie Selebi and Schabir Shaik. Yengeni was carried shoulder-high to his cells after admitting to defrauding Parliament.

The ANC has never distanced itself from the corruption of Shaik and Selebi, who broke the trust of millions.

When it comes to the crime and corruption of comrades, the mere fact that they had participated in the struggle against apartheid should absolve their post-apartheid wrongdoing, seems to be the unspoken suggestion, propagated by statements like those of the ANC about Watson.

That cannot be right.

As a society, we have to find a way to talk about heroes who go rogue, or wrongdoers who mend their ways. The alternative is a binary society where everything is viewed in black and white, right or wrong, good or bad.

I think it is fair to say that, at different times in his life, Gavin Watson was both good and bad.

There is no disputing the fact that the Watson brothers played a significant role, symbolically at least, in the 1970s and 1980s to show South Africans and the world that white people were not united in their support of apartheid.

The importance of Cheeky Watson refusing to take Springbok colours because of his opposition to segregated rugby cannot be overstated.

As the businessman in the family, Gavin Watson supported his brothers and other comrades financially to go underground and spread the ANC's word.

For this he deserves honour and respect. It could not have been easy to be targeted by the Security Branch, threatened and intimidated while you were looking after your family and small children.

After 1994, the Watsons went into business and Gavin was put forward as the family's "nominee" to start a facilities management company called Dyambu with ANC Women's League politicians like Baleka Mbete, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Nomvula Mokonyane.

Dyambu's first and only business was to provide catering and cleaning services to mining hostels on the West Rand. Cleverly, he established the company's head office outside Krugersdorp, away from the shine (and scrutiny) of Johannesburg and Sandton's business districts.

After a few years, Watson and the women broke up and he became the majority shareholder in a company now called Bosasa, that started raking in government tenders.

Bosasa's first major move was into correctional services, to provide catering, security, fencing and TV screens to the country's largest prisons.

Watson had effectively privatised our prisons, with the assistance of senior prisons official Patrick Gillingham, then national commissioner Linda Mti and former correctional services minister Ngconde Balfour.

Behind the scenes, Bosasa was providing much more than facilities to prisons. We know now that the company was also bankrolling the lifestyles of numerous prison officials, including Gillingham and Mti.

But the company's tentacles went even higher. Evidence before the Zondo commission has exposed Bosasa's funding of the ANC, politicians and officials to promote and protect the company from prosecution.

There is no doubt that Watson used his political connections, forged during an honourable struggle against a criminal system, to further his personal and the ANC's fortunes.

This is where the two worlds collide. Mti, for example, was the commander to Watson's brothers in Umkhonto we Sizwe. The noble relationship continued after 1994, but was corrupted when Mti accepted bribes from Bosasa in exchange for tenders from his department.

Although one can be critical about the financial benefits offered to senior comrades like Mti and Selebi when they joined the civil service, this can never be an excuse for corruption. Thousands of other former freedom fighters chose to obey the rule of law and it would be grossly unfair to generalise about bribes becoming some sort of reparations for the damages of apartheid.

Until the ANC has found a way of shaming the likes of Yengeni, Watson, Shaik and Selebi without diminishing their role as freedom fighters, any government efforts or policies to curb corruption will ring hollow.

·         Basson is editor-in-chief of News24 and author of the forthcoming book Blessed by Bosasa.

Read more on:    bosasa  |  angelo agrizzi  |  gavin watson
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