Politics / 1 September 2019, 4:20pm / Mayibongwe Maqhina
The death of African Global Solutions chief executive Gavin Watson, 71, has raised many questions, but to those in the Struggle, he and his Eastern Cape family were pathfinders who turned their back on apartheid.
Gavin, was one of the four Watson brothers - Valence, Ronnie and Daniel, popularly known as Cheeky - grew up on a Somerset East farm in the Eastern Cape.
Their father, according to Wikipedia, was a lay preacher who preached racial equality during apartheid.
Gavin, the eldest of the brothers, met his death on Monday morning when the vehicle he was travelling in plunged into a bridge pillar near the OR Tambo International Airport.
He had apparently used the company’s Toyota Corolla for the weekend after his BMW X5 experienced mechanical problems.
He died on the eve of a South African Revenue Service tax inquiry into African Global Solutions, formerly known as Bosasa, with Times Select revealing Watson “funnelled” as much as half a billion rand into a Guernsey tax haven offshore.
His family has since appointed a forensic engineering and accident reconstruction expert Konrad Lotter to investigate the crash.
Gavin’s death has obviously sparked speculation and there is a general view that he may have taken many of his company’s tax secrets to the grave.
This week, Port Elizabeth activists remembered Gavin and his family for their role in the liberation Struggle.
They told how the family sparked controversy in the 1980s when leadership in the mass democratic movement, United Democratic Front (UDF) was divided on whether a consumer boycott should apply to their businesses.
Businessman and anti-apartheid activist Mkhuseli Jack said the Watsons were a unit that was exemplary. “They continued to subscribe to strong family values as the foundation of any society to start with,” Jack said.
The family was so kind and helpful to former political prisoners, students looking for bursaries and people who wanted to leave the country.
“They were always ready to give a hand. They were the only white family that could delve in those dangerous activities of showing open support for the people who were viewed as people who wanted to topple the government.
“They took a big risk and of course, to an extent, that they paid dearly. In my view, they were humiliated by the security police every step of the way.
“They wanted to demoralise and to blackmail them,” said Jack.
Former Robben Island prisoners, who were imprisoned at a young age and were from poor families, were helped by the Watsons with groceries and other material support at the time.
“It was the Watsons that stepped in and provided necessary things Those things might look small but in those days they were very critical because they made a big difference,” Jack said.
“There were no funders. Other black businesspeople were in the Struggle and some were scared to be caught in the cross-fire. The brutality has always been there because whoever was found on the side of the Struggle was to get serious punishment,” he said.
Fellow anti-apartheid activist Mthiwabo Ndube, now a member of ANC Nelson Mandela regional task team, said it was difficult to discuss one family member without the other.
“They are such a tight bond. They are inter-linked,” Ndube said.
“They are one of the white guys then who broke ranks and denounced apartheid sport. That is where we knew them better,” he said.
Ndube also said the family, which is fluent in Xhosa, worked for the ANC underground and were recruited from the rugby point of view.
“They have been there while it was not fashionable for whites to support the black cause.”
When the youth movement was formed in Port Elizabeth in the late 1970s, the Watsons funded their programmes. This continued during the times of the ANC-aligned UDF.
“When we were burying 15 people a week in 1985, they would pay for the funerals, buy coffins and pay towards food and transport costs. When we were in detention for the State of Emergency from 1985 to 1989 they would visit families. They were the true ANC members and South African compatriots,” Ndube said.
The activists said Gavin’s death shocked the Port Elizabeth community.
“I was shocked when I got the news. I immediately called the family and his brother Valance confirmed. It is sad because we have more than 40-year relationship,” Ndube said.
He said the death becomes tragic when it was sudden as opposed to when one was sick.
“It was a tragic thing for us as friends and comrades.
“We want to be with his family at this point in time,” Ndube said.
This sentiment was shared by Jack, who first met Gavin at a family shop to raise funding for either student activities and other organisations, said a lot of people were shocked by his death.
“You will see how these guys are held in high regard by society once the funeral comes to Port Elizabeth. They will be received like the heroes here, especially by those who served in the Struggle,” he said.
The activism described by the activists was the opposite of what was profiled in the Zondo Commission when former Bosasa chief operations officer Angelo Agrizzi made startling revelations about Gavin who reportedly did not have an office and was involved in bribery of influential politicians.
Jack fondly remembered Gavin as a doer and hard-working man who was very focused.
“Gavin was not a fiery politician, a person who embarked on long talks.
“He was a practical man. Also, he was quick to take decisions whether a decision was in your favour or not,” he said. “You could easily come to a conclusion and understand where you stand with him. There was no beating about the bush. What you see is what you got in him.”
Jack said Watson had a strong personality.
“In some cases if he met a stubborn person and clashed with him, it was a clash over a specific issue and it was never an issue carried over to other issues unrelated to the matter at hand,” he said.
Ndube, who once worked at one of the family’s businesses as director around 2009, remembered Gavin as a pioneer who never wanted glory.
“He never wanted to be recognised, but he put his money where his mouth was.”
Watson was a demanding guy, according to Ndube.
“He wanted delivery. He was a perfectionist. He got things done. He was very impatient with people who were lazy and couldn’t work,” he said.
“There were challenges as you know as it was alleged by Agrizzi but for him he was quite a good chap.
“South Africa has lost a businessperson who could invest because white businesses do not invest in the country but they take their money offshore.”
Ndube listed some of Gavin’s business dealings including the failed prawns farm at Coega Industrial Development Zone.
He said the allegations of corruption obviously dented Gavin’s image.
“Whether you were in the Struggle for 100 years, if you get involved in negative things, it is going to dent your image. Of course, his image was dented,” Ndube said.
“We had expected him to stand up to clear his name, but in general where there is smoke, there is fire.
“It’s one of those things he will never have a chance to clear,” Ndube said.
But, the controversy of Watson and Bosasa is not something new as the activists said the family courted controversy back in the 1980s.
The ANC leadership was caught in divisions on whether the consumer boycotts should apply to the Watsons.
“It was decided that there was going to be no buying in any shops in town,” Jack said.
In an effort to ensure that the boycott was a success, comrades decided it was unfortunate that Watsons should be affected by the mass action.
“There were lots of comrades who spoke in their favour and wanted the boycott to be selective and leave Watsons out of the boycott, but that view never prevailed. It was defeated,” he said.
Ndube laughed when he recalled the incident, saying the Watsons “were quite controversial”.
In the initial consumer boycotts prior to 1985, the Watson businesses were not affected.
“During the 1985 stayaways, we withdrew labour and buying power but they opened up.”
But this matter created divisions within the movement’s leadership.
“We sent a delegation to tell them that we were to boycott them because we could not stop a flood of people from breaking the boycott of white shops,” he said.
“While we agreed that we were in a non-racial struggle but we had to boycott them. That was one thing they never liked. Whites were saying ‘why are they boycotting you when you support them?’,” Ndube said.