Bosasa enlisted a ‘puppet president’ to keep SIU investigators at bay
Former Bosasa chief operations officer Angelo Agrizzi told the inquiry during his testimony that the company sought the influence of the highest political office to stave off imminent prosecution.
Over the course of his evidence, Agrizzi has shocked South Africa by naming several prominent politicians as alleged beneficiaries of corrupt operations carried out by his former employer. According to him, these individuals - who include former and sitting ministers and MPs - were useful to Bosasa because they either greased the right palms to help the company get lucrative contracts, played middle-man to facilitate political protection from scrutiny or looked the other way while Bosasa looted public coffers.
It was not until heavily implicated Bosasa executives had their backs against the wall that they needed the kind of political help that keeps criminal investigators and prosecutors at bay. Agrizzi mentioned two incidents that place former president Jacob Zuma as a key figure in the alleged blocking of legal action against executives found guilty by a Special Investigating Unit (SIU) probe, mandated by the Presidency to investigate four contracts with the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). The probe determined that the contracts were irregularly awarded to Bosasa between 2004 and 2006.
In an audio recording played for the inquiry in January, Zuma was portrayed as the ultimate puppet president who could be persuaded to do anything by Bosasa chief executive Gavin Watson. The recording, which forms part of Agrizzi’s evidence, was allegedly made by him in 2015, and features the voices of three men: Agrizzi, Watson and former DCS national commissioner Linda Mti. Asked why he felt the need to record the conversation, Agrizzi said it happened in the context of an environment where everyone saw it important to protect themselves, and loyalties were not guaranteed among those benefiting from Bosasa’s corruption.
The three appear to be discussing developments in the corruption case developed in 2009 by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), following the SIU investigation. Collectively, the contracts fetched in excess of R1billion per annum, with some extended intermittently without following the proper public procurement methods.
When the NPA took over the case, according to Agrizzi, Bosasa executives panicked over the prospect of prosecutions shutting down their cash cow - but it was Mti who proposed getting inside help from senior prosecutors Nomgqobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi, who would leak information on the case to Bosasa in return for cash. The two advocates did so, he said, on a regular basis, helping Bosasa stay a step ahead of the NPA.
Jiba would later be appointed as acting NPA head after the resignation of Mxolisi Nxasana in May 2015 until the appointment of Shaun Abrahams, while Mrwebi heads up the special commercial crimes unit, under which the investigation fell.
Help from the top
For the most part, the recording features the voice of Watson who can be heard telling the others how he planned to escalate his concerns regarding NPA’s handling of the case to “the old man”, supposedly referring to Zuma. He goes on to name then Hawks head Anwar Dramat, saying he was determined to see the case succeed, while former NPA senior prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach was “obsessed” with getting Bosasa. Watson can also be heard telling the others that he needed a particular approach to get Zuma to act, because there was a certain way one needed to approach him to get him on your side.
He further singles out Breytenbach’s obsession, which was playing itself out in the media, as the reason the case would not go away.
Senior NPA prosecutor Marijke de Kock, who recently testified on the matter, told the commission how Breytenbach was removed from the case in early 2010, just months after the NPA received the SIU findings, and replaced by her.
Zuma, says Watson in the recording, needed to know who within the NPA could not be trusted. According to Agrizzi, Watson met Zuma just days after the meeting, although he did not share the details of what the pair discussed.
The recording is, so far, the only piece of evidence that places Watson squarely in the middle of the alleged corrupt relationship between Bosasa and DCS leadership, including Mti, and demonstrates the level of power Watson was able to wield with senior politicians, in this case the former president.
Former Bosasa employees who have testified recall the executive was always careful not to append his signature to documents that may implicate him.
Former SIU lead investigator Clinton Oellermann testified that an agreement had to be reached with Bosasa, following a court interdict by the company to block the investigation, that he would not be interviewed as part of their evidence-gathering process.
The second incident on record that implicates Zuma in meddling allegedly happened in June 2016 on the sidelines of a meeting at his Nkandla home to discuss a prospective fracking venture in which Bosasa was involved. At this meeting, said Agrizzi, Bosasa director Joe Gumede brought up the issue of the Hawks’ Bosasa investigation, which had crept up again to haunt the company. Gumede told Agrizzi later that when he mentioned this to Zuma, the former president offered to make some phone calls, and seemed to be talking to a Hawks official.
There would be a subsequent meeting between the law enforcement agency and Bosasa, the details of which Agrizzi again did not share.
* Talane is a writer for Corruption Watch