A devout Christian, Retief van der Merwe was appointed in 2004 as Bosasa security coordinator at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
When, during his interview for the position with Gavin Watson and Angelo Agrizzi, the former highway-patrol policeman from Krugersdorp saw the bookshelf filled with Bibles, he knew Bosasa was the company for him. 'I immediately thought I could associate with these guys. We had touchpoints.'
One of these was that Watson and Lindie Gouws were congregants at the church Van der Merwe himself attended, Little Falls Christian Centre. 'Angelo said he saw on my CV that I was at Little Falls Christian Centre, and said [that the company had] a prayer meeting every morning from 06:00 to 08:00 and I [was] welcome to attend. I thought that was indirectly an answer to my prayers. Angelo said Gavin Watson was there with directors of the company and they prayed together. I got the impression they wanted to see how committed you were.'
Van der Merwe said that attendees at the prayer meetings included 'Gavin, Angelo and Lindie Gouws … Andries and Leon van Tonder, Joe Gumede, Papa Leshabane, Ishmael Mncwaba, Thandi Makoko, Jackie Leyds, Ryno Roode and Danie van Tonder.' Watson would decide who in the group would 'bring the Word' and that person was required to read a few verses from the Bible, which would then be discussed by the group. 'Sometimes Gavin would elaborate on the section and put it in context with what was happening in the world, and then everyone [got] a chance to pray.'
Van der Merwe sometimes felt that Watson's 'sermons' weren't on point, but he soon realised his CEO wasn't someone you could confront or challenge. 'If he spoke, you listened.'
And it didn't take Van der Merwe long to figure out that attendees were there to 'impress Gavin, not to have a conversation with God'. Lindie Gouws in particular would 'go on and on and pray for his wisdom and call him the pillar of the company'.
One day, Van der Merwe recalled, Gouws told the group that the Lord had told her that the three windows behind Watson symbolised the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 'She said Gavin was the anointed one and that we must bless him. We had to point our hands towards him and pray for him, the Alfa and the Omega.' Van der Merwe said this was when he realized that there was more going on than met the eye.
Bjorkman mentioned that Watson would even organise communion for staff, with wafers and mock wine.
Angelo Agrizzi said Bosasa's 'Christian culture' also attracted him. 'I believed it was Godsent.'
As Gavin Watson's right-hand man, Agrizzi had to attend the daily prayer meetings. 'So we started every morning, and I believe, I really do, that it was sincere. So from 06:30 to 08:00 it would continue, but it became kind of a cult. They would invite prophets, not much dissimilar to what you see on TV. They would invite certain pastors from occasion to occasion.
They would lead these prayer meetings and then they would have all-night prayer meetings as well, but quite simply, it was a mockery, and I had compromised [myself] by even being part of it. But, you see, Gavin Watson was a very charismatic leader and he had a lot of influence over all his employees.'
Watson would sometimes use the prayer meeting to embarrass or challenge people, Van der Merwe said. '[The company's auditors Ryno Viljoen and Gerrie Bester] were put under pressure by Watson to pray.
Gerrie didn't want to pray but Ryno prayed. They didn't like what Ryno was praying at all. He asked the Lord to give us wisdom and help us stay on the right path. After that, he was banned from attending the prayer meeting again … [The financial director] Andries van Tonder was given an instruction to look for new auditors. We never saw Ryno again at the prayer meeting.'
Over time, the prayer meetings became more general, with attendees discussing company matters. 'There was no longer intense praying. I just sat and read my Bible. They spoke about meetings that would happen outside of company structures. They [Watson and the other directors] would often meet at night, probably to discuss the corruption. I started realizing that what they said before and behind you were not the same thing.'
Leshabane, a company director and spokesperson, often reeked of alcohol during prayer meetings, said Van der Merwe. 'He started attending less and less. Papa sat next to me and I could smell him. Gavin said no booze was allowed in the company; he even removed the alcohol from Bosasa's suites at sport stadiums. I just laughed when I heard from the testimony at the Zondo Commission that they used Jumbo Liquor to launder money.'
It was well known by then that one of the directors had had an extramarital affair with a staff member and they wanted Watson to address it with him. 'But it was clear to me that Gavin was compromised and couldn't speak to [the director] about this. His own sexual life was in dispute.'
Watson introduced the 'Daniel fast' at Bosasa, during which those who participated had to avoid meat, alcohol and rich foods for 40 days. The company made fruit and vegetables available for those who were fasting, but not everyone complied after hours. 'Driving home, I would see Andries van Tonder stuffing his [face] with hamburgers at McDonald's.'
Van der Merwe spoke about a prophet who regularly visited Bosasa to pray for the directors and staff. He was paid a monthly stipend and also given cash from Watson's walk-in safe. 'One day he arrived and told Watson in front of all of us that Bosasa was built on the wrong foundations.
He told Watson to sort out the foundations of the company fast, because if he [didn't], the company would crumble. … [The prophet] was chased away and his monthly payments stopped.'
A few days later, Watson brought a family friend, the gospel singer Ken Larkin, to Johannesburg from Port Elizabeth to 'give a prophecy to us that everything will go well with Bosasa. I saw right through their façade. This was not about the Lord, but about them,' said Van der Merwe. Van der Merwe started asking questions in the prayer meetings after my articles about Bosasa's alleged corruption started to appear in the press.
'In my naivety, I asked Watson if any of these allegations [were] true. He exploded like a cracker. ''How dare you ask this?'' he shouted. I was made out as the biggest idiot.'
Denise Bjorkman remembered that staff aspired to be invited to the prayer meetings, where company secrets were shared. 'They enjoyed a Freemason type of reputation, suggesting something secret, their own religion, their own God and their own rules, contrary to mainstream religious sects. Some attendance was motivated only to get acceptance into the Watson inner circle. But information sought was doled out piecemeal like crumbs in a bird park. Watson had an acute sense of timing and the dramatic, and knew how to drop tidbits of information about what was really happening behind the scenes, and then pull back abruptly, leaving attendees gasping for more.'
When she asked Watson which church's beliefs he was following, he told her, 'I am the church.' 'Membership to his church drew disproportionally from management and the board of directors. Christian Bibles were ubiquitous.'
When in the late 2000s Watson tried to give money to Pastor Theuns Blom from Little Falls Christian Centre (LFCC), Blom declined, saying it was against the church's principles. 'Gavin believed you could smooth anyone with money,' said Van der Merwe. (After his death in August 2019, a memorial service was held for Watson at the LFCC.)
The ex cop, who was still a deeply religious man, told me that Watson had printed photos of me and Willie Hofmeyr, the SIU head who was pursuing the Bosasa-corruption investigation. 'He blessed you; he prayed for you,' Van der Merwe said.
And Agrizzi told me that I had my own scripture at Bosasa that Watson quoted over me – Psalm 35. I looked it up.
1 Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me.
2 Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help.
3 Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
'You must understand that when someone prays for you and blesses you, but they are busy with other things, it can turn into a curse,' Van der Merwe told me. 'That's what is happening to Gavin today. The cult that he had, where everyone had to worship him, where he was the authority in those prayer meetings, it turned into a curse.'
Van der Merwe confessed to me that he went through a deep religious crisis after realising that Watson was using religion to hide his corruption and manipulate his staff. 'It took me a year after leaving Bosasa to figure out how you [could] reconcile Christianity and manipulation through Christianity and money. How [could] you do that? I realised the mistake [was] not with Christianity or the Bible, but with them. They made compromises. Gavin made compromises with Lindie Gouws and with money. All the guys around that prayer table made one or other compromise to manipulate the word of God to fit in with their lifestyles. To me, they became an embodiment of the devil. The devil bamboozled them with money; they suddenly had money.
'At one point in his life, all the Watson brothers lived in one flat. They had poverty. Angelo's evidence was that he came out of poverty. That poverty brought them to a point where they only had money. There is a saying, ''They were so poor, they only had money.'' Their people relationships completely collapsed; they valued themselves higher than other people because they had money.'
Watson thought he was the 'king of the place and the story', said Van der Merwe. 'He was the king of South Africa. In his brain, he was on his way to become the king of Africa. If you [were] a young Christian or a Christian just in name, you [would] fall for his nonsense. He's got a very strong personality; he [was] very persuasive.'
Bosasa's success in winning government tenders contributed to many employees believing that Watson was a 'saviour, a highly religious man, appointed by God', Bjorkman said. She explained, 'Many staff had normal religious beliefs. But there were people who were religious fanatics. They would come into your office and ''Hallelujah!'' and start praying and put heir hands on you. There were these little plaques all over the park with quotes from the Bible. Lindie Gouws put these up all over so that the entire park was blessed.'
Van der Merwe said, 'In the prayer meetings, upcoming tenders and how they must position the company were discussed. This information wasn't even in the public domain. If you are a Christian in good standing and a Christian principled company, you don't buy cars and overseas trips for senior government officials like Patrick Gillingham and Linda Mti.
Bosasa's corruption was clouded in this Christian cloud and they might have thought that hiding in this cloud will cover or blind people to see the truth.
'That is where the Bosasa cult came in; all the prayers were focused to enrich a few, although it was said that a large portion of the company was going to benefit from an employees' trust. No employee ever benefited from this trust. The objective of all the prayers and Christian functions was to enrich the directors, [and] ultimately the Watsons, their close friends like Agrizzi, ministers and people who assisted to get the tenders awarded.
The Bosasa way was to manipulate, corrupt and steal from companies and the government and sugarcoat it in a Christian façade.' After hearing how speakers at Watson's memorial service in August 2019 mocked the idea that Bosasa was a cult, Van der Merwe revealed to me how boxes containing tender submissions were anointed with oil before they were submitted. 'When the tender is announced in the Government Gazette you attend all the site visits, the tender briefings, and collect all the documentation and information. You prepare your documentation and technical and financial response, and even get somebody on the adjudication committee to come and advise and peruse your submission. However, you do this after hours [so] that your staff don't see what is happening.
'You then seal the tender boxes with your final submission, take them to the prayer meeting on the morning of the submission, anoint them with oil and pray over the submissions. All of this was part of the Bosasa cult ritual.'
What particularly irked Van der Merwe was how religion was manipulated to deify Watson. At his memorial service, Watson was hailed by his family and former colleagues as an exemplary Christian leader, and former minister Nomvula Mokonyane even went so far as to compare him to Jesus Christ.
* This extract was taken from Blessed by Bosasa by Adriaan Basson, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.