Adriaan Basson

Adriaan Basson: How the ANC failed its principled son, Vernie Petersen

2019-11-11 05:00
Former correctional services commissioner Vernie Petersen. (Image via Facebook)

Former correctional services commissioner Vernie Petersen. (Image via Facebook)

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A woman who knows everything about the high price you pay in the ANC for standing up against corruption attended my launch in Hyde Park on Tuesday. Her name is June Petersen, writes Adriaan Basson.

While South Africa came to a standstill last week for the triumphant Boks, I took another B-word on the road.

My latest book Blessed by Bosasa was launched and I had the privilege to engage South Africans about almost two decades of state capture and whether the governing ANC had the ability to save itself.

I dislike generalisations and binary debates, but it was hard to argue against the viewpoint that the Bosasa story was final proof that the ANC was beyond redemption.

EXTRACT: Blessed by Bosasa: Inside Gavin Watson's 'cult rituals'

Very few senior ANC politicians are not linked to Bosasa or the Watson family in some shape or form. From former president Thabo Mbeki, whose political adviser was a shareholder in a Bosasa subsidiary, to President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose CR17 campaign received R500 000 from Gavin Watson, the company's tentacles were all over the governing party.

I made the argument at one of my book launches that the likes of Watson, Schabir Shaik and other corrupt businessmen don't discriminate against political factions. They go where the power is (the money will follow).

This was illustrated by the wily Watson's ability to ingratiate himself with former president Jacob Zuma post the 2007 Polokwane conference, after the Watsons were intimately linked to the ANC's Eastern Cape chiefs for decades.

When it became clear that Ramaphosa would become president, Watson forged a business relationship with his son, Andile. Not unlike the Gupta family's capture of the Zumas, Watson targeted the president's offspring.

For their part, the ANC is unable to speak ill of comrades who had gone rogue. At Watson's funeral and memorial service, the likes of Zuma and Nomvula Mokonyane spoke of him glowingly without once mentioning the corruption found at Bosasa by an ANC-created anti-corruption body, the Special Investigating Unit.

A woman who knows everything about the high price you pay in the ANC for standing up against corruption attended my launch in Hyde Park on Tuesday. Her name is June Petersen.

June is the widow of Vernie Petersen, a struggle activist from the Cape Flats who dedicated his life to those on the fringes of society. After achieving freedom, the ANC deployed Petersen to Parliament, and then in the department of social welfare.

He was a trained social worker with a passion for the poor and downtrodden.

In mid-2007, after the disgraceful exit of Linda Mti as national commissioner of correctional services after his business links to Bosasa were exposed, Petersen was appointed head of prisons (Mti wasn't kicked out, but deployed to the 2010 Soccer World Cup organising committee).

June remembers what a privilege it was for her late husband to be given this responsibility. He didn't see this portfolio as a curse or a chore like many politicians and civil servants before and after him, but as a mission.

Unfortunately for Petersen, he underestimated the depth of the rot that had set in at the department and in his political home, the ANC.

The more Petersen tried to clean-up the department of correctional services, the more he walked into walls and traps.

His former comrade, Ngconde Balfour, led the charge against Petersen's attempts to rid the department of Bosasa's corrupt capture, that saw essential services like cooking privatised.

After unsuccessfully trying to get Mbeki and his director-general Frank Chikane to intervene, Petersen was moved to the sport department through a presidential minute, signed by then acting president Baleka Mbete.

The ANC's links to Bosasa and the Watsons go back right to the beginning of the company and the company's demise runs parallel to the party's struggles to stay in charge.

There were some ANC comrades at my book launch and June Petersen looked them in the eye when she spoke with firm grace: "The ANC failed Vernie."

I was asked many times during the past week whether my book or plenty of other corruption stories – pick your scandal – still embarrasses the ANC. My take is that the governing party is beyond embarrassment and in survival mode.

Split between two factions vying for power, the best Ramaphosa's ANC can do is to honour those like Vernie Petersen by making sure there aren't others like him who are currently being elbowed out for doing the right thing.

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24.

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