Guest Column

OPINION: The enigma that was Gavin Watson

2019-08-28 05:00
Gavin Watson leads former president Jacob Zuma on a tour of Bosasa's facililties.

Gavin Watson leads former president Jacob Zuma on a tour of Bosasa's facililties. (Supplied)

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People who worked with Gavin Watson often said he had the bearing of a stern headmaster. He was respected and admired but also feared. He had a corps of staffers who were useful and loyal to him, write James-Brent Styan and Paul Vecchiatto.

Gavin Watson, the former CEO of the utility services group Bosasa, has never appeared publicly to tell his side of things.

Watson and his business have long been in the spotlight and linked to allegations of corruption but no one, including him, has ever been found guilty of anything.

This looked set to change following the explosive evidence delivered at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture earlier this year.

Multiple whistleblowers, including lead witness Angelo Agrizzi, delivered testimony and evidence pointing to decades of corrupt activities at Bosasa under Watson, activities that included paying cash bribes to a multitude of officials and politicians in exchange for favours.

Over the past 20 years, Bosasa has done business with the government to the tune of roughly R12bn. The bribes ranged from between R4m and R6m in cash per month and allegedly included numerous high profile members of the ANC.

The Zondo commission saw on a secretly filmed video how Watson packed parcels of cash that,  according to Agrizzi, were destined for bribes. In the video, Watson can be heard referring to the piles of cash as "monopoly money".

Watson was the eldest of four boys hailing from the Eastern Cape. During the apartheid years, the Watsons' liberal views often placed them at odds with the government. The brothers were increasingly ostracised and harassed by the state.

On October 19, 1985, a blaze destroyed their family home. The state accused three of the Watsons (not Gavin Watson) and two employees of arson. "They want to silence us," Watson said at the time. "The authorities have wanted for a long time to harass us into silence, to intimidate us into silence and, if that failed, they have shown their willingness to put us in jail to force us into silence … and not just us, but anyone willing to stand up and fight this system as we have done and will continue to do."

The Watsons eventually won their case in court but not before losing their business.

One of Watson's most defining personality traits was that he was a determined man. People who worked with him or were close to him often said he had the bearing of a stern headmaster. He was respected and admired but also feared. He also had a deft understanding of human nature and this ensured he employed a corps of staffers who were useful and loyal to him. It meant he understood what motivated people and how to find chinks in their armour that was exploitable.

He had a rather stoic bearing and seemed to have little interest in being flashy or in material things in general. He did not drive around in Ferraris or own large exclusive mansions in Johannesburg's suburbs like Agrizzi did.

He may have been wealthy but where and what he did with his money is still largely unclear. His detractors believe he stowed the bulk of it offshore. This has not been proven.

What seems to have really motivated him was power and having influence over those who wield power. He was a close associate of former president Jacob Zuma and contributed controversially to Cyril Ramaphosa's ANC presidential election campaign.

Watson had strong religious convictions too, many close to him likened his running of the business as running a cult with early morning prayer sessions that could last hours, a regular occurrence with real repercussions for any who missed the meetings.

He continues to have many supporters and friends, some who have described him as a "man of faith, authentic and innocent" and "driving real transformative change".

Since January 2019, when the revelations around Bosasa and state capture started coming out, Watson was busy "doing what he could to find jobs for the 4 500 employees who lost their jobs at Bosasa due to the ongoing saga", said two separate sources we interviewed while writing our book.

One source claimed the family still enjoyed broad support despite the recent challenges and they felt no need to clear the air about the allegations that were made against them.

"Those who respect the family, those who knew the family, their opinions have not changed and they do not need the air to be cleared."

The business is in the process of being liquidated.

"We are just wrapping up the last things," said one of Watson's close associates.

By July 2019, Watson was facing legal challenges on multiple fronts. These included a confidential inquiry from SARS who was looking into his tax affairs. The Gauteng High Court also ruled against him in a separate matter relating to BEE mining shares that the complainants said he had "stolen".

The court ruled Watson had to return the shares and pay back all dividends as well as 10% interest per year. As far as possible criminal prosecution is concerned, nothing had happened yet but the case was a priority for the National Prosecuting Authority.

Now with Watson's untimely death, he will take a lot of what happened to the grave with him.

That is a pity.

As authors, we were shocked to hear of Watson's untimely and unexpected death on Monday morning, August 26. He, along with his family, played a pivotal and controversial role in the shaping of South African politics and business. We would have dearly wanted to see Watson appear before the commission of inquiry into state capture to tell his side of the story as we believe he had the most in-depth knowledge of all involved. Our sincerest condolences to his family and loved ones.

- James-Brent Styan and Paul Vecchiatto are the authors of The Bosasa Billions.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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