Defending Gavin Watson: Last rites as Bosasa, Mokonyane make a last stand

Gavin Watson's son Roth. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla
Gavin Watson's son Roth. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

It was on Friday, the fourth day following the untimely demise of Bosasa boss Gavin Watson, that friends and family gathered at a mega-church in Roodepoort to remember “the Gavin they knew”.

There were heartfelt moments of sadness, coupled with dramatic threats of retribution against journalists who had “hung a hero”.

One day, sometime in the unspecified future, the true story of Watson would be told, it was said.

Watson, 71, died in the early hours of Monday morning after the Toyota Corolla he was driving collided with a concrete pillar on an approach road leading to OR Tambo International Airport.   

300 or so guests congregated at Little Falls Christian Centre on Friday morning for the memorial service, complete with a gospel choir, resplendent in Bosasa’s trademark blue shirts, emblazoned with the company’s new name and logo – African Global Operations.

The Bosasa blue dominated the seats, drowning out almost all else. The yellow of the ANC, the party inextricably linked with Watson and his company, was spotted only here and there.

Former minister Nomvula Mokonyane. (Felix Dlangamandla, Netwerk24)

The stage was flanked by enormous portrait photographs of Watson, a digital projection showing his photograph also splashed across the backdrop. The same screen would later show testimonial videos.

Jared Watson, his nephew, was overcome with tears on more than one occasion. Roth Watson, his son, fought them throughout his eulogy.

Valence Watson, his brother, delivered perhaps the keenest insight into Gavin and told of a man of “discipline and hard work, of love and trust”.

And a man of God, innocent and persecuted for his faith.

Former minister Nomvula Mokonyane was the only high profile ANC politician in attendance, with the exception perhaps of Richmond Mti, the MK veteran and former correctional services commissioner who is a central figure in corruption allegations surrounding Watson and Bosasa.

It was Mokonyane, in a rousing speech, who singled out News24 editor in chief Adriaan Basson and his publication for “persecuting” Watson.

Basson drove the first exposes of Bosasa corruption in 2006 published in the Mail & Guardian and continued to cover the scandal for more than a decade for City Press and most recently, News24.

Bosasa executive Gavin Watson.

She mentioned Basson’s upcoming book, Blessed by Bosasa, and questions Basson had posed to her just last week over the long-standing relationship between her and Watson.  

She also singled out Angelo Agrizzi, the former Bosasa chief operations officer turned whistleblower, who famously took to the witness stand at the Zondo Commission into state capture to reveal bombshell allegations of further corruption.

Agrizzi was not mentioned by name but Mokonayane made pointed remarks about “fat stomachs” and flashy cars.  

Mokonyane, who allegedly received cash and gifts from Watson (including security upgrades to her home and an expensive rental car for her daughter), pointed out that Watson driving the Corolla was a sign of his humble nature.

His million-rand BMW X5 was parked at Bosasa’s offices following a mechanical issue, News24 reported this week. 

She also said Watson trusted too easily.

“Love them, but never trust them,” she said.  

The accusation of betrayal hung unspoken but heavy in the air.

If it were not for Agrizzi and the “hateful” journalists, Bosasa would still be in operation.

Mokonyane urged guests to think of the children Bosasa looks after at its Youth Centres, where awaiting trial youngsters are looked after.

Bosasa and Watson were accused of bribing government officials to secure lucrative tenders, and were paid millions every month for the running and management of these youth centres.

She berated the media for reporting the death of Watson on Monday before the family was made aware.

“My time will come,” Mokonyane said, saying she would tell the story of what Agrizzi did, and the truth about Watson.

Watson and his family are known for their refusal to play rugby for segregated teams during the height of the Apartheid regime.

The family, originally from Port Elizabeth, also assisted in smuggling exiled ANC comrades in and out of the country. After the fall of Apartheid many ANC comrades with not a cent to their name, were sent to the Watson family business to get clothes.

Mokonyane also pointed out how the Watsons had built homes for struggle figures, and assisted them in their time of need.

With the ‘attacks’ on Watson since last year, history was being rewritten, Jared Watson claimed. The media was solely focused on the negative and refused to tell the tale of Watson’s good deeds and struggle credentials.

“To the family and friends who did not run away and hide…thank you,” long-time Bosasa spokesman and director Papa Leshabane said in his closing remarks.

The many politicians who benefitted financially from the Watson/Bosasa empire were conspicuous in their absence.

Veteran ANC MP Vincent Smith, Parliament’s chair of chairs Cedrick Frolick, mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe, former president Jacob Zuma, president Cyril Ramaphosa, former ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize – none were present.

Former minister Nomvula Mokonyane. (Felix Dlangamandla, Netwerk24)

Ramaphosa’s son, Andile, who had concluded a business deal with Bosasa, particularly Gavin Watson, was also not there.

The over-arching theme was a portrayal of Gavin Watson as a struggle hero, persecuted by an unjust and evil media while betrayed by those he trusted.

There was a claim to innocence that was never fully verbalised.

News24 has revealed secret recordings of Watson bragging of his plans to influence then president Jacob Zuma over the appointment of a new national director of public prosecutions in 2015.

The goal? To continue to stave off a prosecution on charges of bribery and corruption recommended by the Special Investigating Unit in 2009.

Agrizzi also gave testimony before the Zondo commission, telling of how Watson instructed his staff to destroy evidence to hobble the SIU probe.

A video of Watson counting out R1-million in cash at a safe inside Bosasa’s head office was played at the Zondo Commission – the money allegedly used to pay bribes to journalists, politicians and government officials.

Without doubt, Gavin Watson was a hero of the struggle against apartheid. Without doubt, he damaged that legacy through schemes that resulted in money changing hands in exchange for lucrative state tenders.

Another video showed Watson speaking of his “tender networks” at a staff event.  

The Watson family are, rightfully, placing a high price on Gavin Watson’s legacy and attempted to show at the memorial on Friday a side of the man a little less known, as they accuse the South African media of “rewriting history”.

Watson is set to be buried in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday.

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