Bosasa CEO Gavin and his brothers – among them former rugby executive Dan –were lauded as struggle icons during the apartheid era before falling foul of the law.
Legal matters should be taking up much of Gavin Watson’s time, given his position as chief executive officer of the Bosasa group, now African Global Operations – and the fact that he was rolled under the bus last week by former accomplice Angelo Agrizzi at the commission of inquiry into state capture.
But this is not the first time a member of the Watson clan has run foul of the law.
Watson’s older brother, Dan – widely known in Port Elizabeth and rugby circles as “Cheeky” – also finds himself in a spot of legal bother, after he and three others were arrested in 2017 on charges of fraud.
This followed a Hawks investigation into money laundering and corruption relating to the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality’s beleaguered Integrated Public Transport System.
The allegations against the former Eastern Province (EP) Rugby president and his supposed accomplices are that said “cohorts” deposited the municipality’s money into the rugby union’s bank account for Watson to withdraw it and give it back to them.
He, in turn, has labelled the charges as malicious.
An EP Rugby insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was adamant that “nobody knows if he benefited” from the alleged scheme.
Nevertheless, Watson’s ongoing court case is a sizeable fall from grace for a man who made his name as a principled anti-apartheid activist whose born-again Christian values saw him and his brother, Valence, break segregation laws by playing rugby in the townships from the 1970s.
As a result, the four Watson brothers – Dan, Valence, Ronnie and Gavin – who were born on a farm in the Eastern Cape, spoke fluent Xhosa and were raised by a preacher who taught them that everybody was equal, have always been seen as struggle giants in the Eastern Cape.
After 1994, they immersed themselves in the business of BEE.
Valence and Ronnie joined the Kebble mining empire, while Gavin started Bosasa, which had a number of subsidiaries – including Sondolo IT, Phezulu Fencing and Leading Prospect Trading.
The Bosasa group won government tenders to provide food and security to prisons, to feed and transport refugees at the Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp, and to provide security at the country’s courts and airports.
Looking back at what they did during the apartheid era, a rugby official familiar with their forays into Port Elizabeth’s townships to play for Spring Rose rugby club lauded their willingness to go against the grain.
“It was totally unthinkable what they did,” he said.
“They could have been charged for being in the township, but they did it anyway. They got a lot of attention from the Special Branch for that. But at the time, you could not make a more anti-racist statement than to play rugby in the townships.
“Can you imagine the social backlash they received from the white community? I believe that stalked Cheeky when he became EP president – he was never forgiven among the whites, and it showed in his failure to get sponsorship for the team from corporate business in Port Elizabeth.”
There was talk at the time that the Watsons’ struggle had less to do with altruism than it did with protecting their men’s fashion shop, which sold mostly to black customers, at a time when businesses were being burnt in the uprisings.
Said the official: “There will be a lot of people rejoicing about this [Gavin’s pending legal woes] because it would confirm a view they held back then. In a sense, this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
That said, Cheeky also has a history of not doing business along strictly conventional lines.
When he was appointed EP president in 2008, the black community saw him as the man to take black rugby to the proverbial Promised Land.
But by the time he was forced to step down, the union had been liquidated by its players for failing to pay their salaries.
Angelo Agrizzi, former chief operations officer of facilities company Bosasa, revealed that about 80 people were on the company’s monthly “monopoly money” payroll. They include:
- Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula when she was allegedly a shareholder at Dyambu Holdings, as Bosasa was previously named.
- Girly Pikoli, wife of former national director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli, when she was also a shareholder at Dyambu Holdings.
- The ANC, which allegedly got R1.8 million in kickbacks following the laundering of R3.4 million from the department of social work in North West.
- Siviwe Mapisa, the former head of security of the SA Post Office (Sapo), and brother of Mapisa-Nqakula, who got expensive premier gifts including luxury Cartier and Montblanc pens, as well as cufflinks and watches.
- Sapo’s former chief executive, Maanda Manyatshe, who also got expensive premier gifts, including luxury Cartier and Montblanc pens, as well as cufflinks and watches.
- Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union general secretary Simon Mofokeng was also on Bosasa’s payroll to give the controversial company access to Sasol, where the Cosatu affiliate organises.
- Former Correctional Services chief financial officer Patrick Gillingham was allegedly paid R40 000 while he was at the department of correctional services and R110 000 when he left his post.
- National Prosecuting Authority officials were also bribed to impede the prosecution of Bosasa employees implicated in a Special Investigating Unit probe. The amount paid was not specified.
One of the EP officials who contributed to his ousting in 2016 gave a damning indictment of his leadership: “The way he ran things was similar to what [former president Jacob] Zuma did. He created a patronage system from the clubs that had people he used to play with, and that’s why he could run EP so badly for so long and got away with it.”
The main accusation against Watson’s rule was a lack of accountability.
“He did not hold an annual general meeting (AGM) and the rugby union was not audited in 2014 and 2015.”
When finally forced to hold an AGM in 2016, the official claims Watson attempted to manipulate the room by reading a verse from the Bible about David being sold into slavery by his brothers, instead of making his president’s report.
“When we finally ousted him for changing audited financial statements, we inherited a union that was liquidated, run by SA Rugby, and had a players’ academy that was falling apart – and we had to start with R31 in the bank account.”
Cheeky’s son, Luke, would go on to be a professional rugby player, but he had a difficult relationship with the sport and its white, Afrikaans public.
A child prodigy who led every team he played for at school, Luke’s progress was seen as the rise of the messiah, who would complete the family’s struggle for equality by captaining the Springboks one day.
But Watson junior – himself a divisive figure for his political activist-meets-born-again Christian approach as a player – would only play 10 tests for the Boks after his inclusion was forced on then coach Jake White.
A sign of how unpopular Watson – who was called “a cancer” in the team by former Springbok captain John Smit in his book – was in the Bok team, was how he cut a lone figure in the immediate aftermath of the side’s upset victory over New Zealand in Dunedin in 2008, playing with his cellphone outside the dressing room while his team-mates celebrated inside.
Watson was also secretly recorded saying the problem with rugby was that it was “run by Dutchmen” and he wanted to vomit on the Springbok jersey – comments for which he has since apologised.
Complex does not even begin to describe the Watsons’ relationship with South Africa.