CAPE TOWN - Gavin Watson's death on an airport slipway adds more drama and speculation to a saga that saw vociferous opponents of apartheid become key players in a corruption scandal steadily consuming the credibility of the country's democratic government.
Watson, 71, died as the Toyota he was driving at high speed slammed into a concrete pillar at OR Tambo International Airport early on Monday morning.
His own flashy BMW SUV was parked in the basement of the Krugersdorp offices of African Global Operations, the new name of the company better known as Bosasa that vies with the Gupta business empire for the title of top accused in alleged corrupt dealings with the state.
For a long time this was not the case. Revelations about the state capture scandal focused on the Gupta brothers and counting the billions they had reportedly cost South Africa through their grip on the Zuma administration and the country's state-owned enterprises.
Bosasa remained relatively under the radar, despite a probe the Special Investigations Unit began in 2007 into tender corruption relating to its lucrative contracts with the correctional services department.
The Watson brothers - Gavin, Cheeky, Ronnie and Valence - hailed from a farm in the Eastern Cape, the sons of a layman preacher profoundly opposed to racial segregation. The brothers, Gavin being the eldest, attended the posh Graeme College where they excelled at rugby.
Ironically, the sport of rugby, one of the bastions of apartheid, cemented the family's anti-apartheid beliefs and renown as township activists drafted them in to coaching black players while the brothers also spurned the white rugby establishment to turn out for black rugby clubs. The brothers soon attracted the attention of the apartheid police who detained and questioned them several times.
When the brothers went into business they catered mainly for a black clientele, and gained further strong support in the community and the anti-apartheid movement.
In the mid 1990s, Gavin Watson become involved in the Dyambo Trust, which secured a contract for the running of the Lindela Repatriation Centre.
The company was the forerunner for Bosasa, and the deal the first in a portfolio that rapidly built up business providing catering and facilities management services to government entities.
In time, it secured contracts with the state worth R12 billion.
How it did so, was set out in lurid testimony by the company's former CEO Angelo Agrizzi before the Zondo commission of inquiry into the state capture scandal earlier this year.
Agrizzi told the commission of the systematic payment of bribes, starting with trade union bosses in the late 1999s to ease its newfound business of running mine hostels, and adding to up to an average R5 million a month as the business expanded.
It secured contracts with Sasol, the department of correctional services, the South African Post Office and the Airports Company of South Africa, and eventually employed more than 4,500 people. Throughout, Watson portrayed his company culture as one based on a strong religious faith and an ethos of empowerment.
Agrizzi likened it to "a cult".
Employees at the Krugersdorp headquarters began their workday with prayer meetings, but in the background, he said, he was tasked with organising bribes in cash, Cartier pens, a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with banknotes, and in the case of former Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane, huge orders of food and drink come Christmas.
Equally at odds with the company's image, was Agrizzi's racist outburst in a recording played at the commission. On tape, he repeatedly used the derogatory "k-word" to refer to black people. The recording was made over dinner with Watson's children.
The revelations on Bosasa not only subverted the narrative that state capture was largely confined to the Gupta brothers. Whereas the Gupta scandal engulfed the Zuma administration, the Bosasa allegations embroils President Cyril Ramaphosa, in the form of a R500,000 donation to his campaign to win the presidency of the ruling party in 2017, and undermines his efforts to be seen as a clear break with the corruption of the past.
Watson's death is likely to leave many questions unanswered in the unfolding investigation that stems from Agrizzi's testimony.
James Brent Styan, the co-author of The Bosasa Billions, said whichever way one looked at Watson, his was a complex legacy.
“Depending on who you ask, you’ll either hear that Watson was an iconic struggle hero and a successful businessman or that he was the deeply corrupt leader of a state capture cult.
“It is known that Watson didn’t keep notes or records. He didn’t have a computer or an office. The impact of his death on the Bosasa investigations is therefore immense. He was a central figure to uncovering the truth about all the allegations relating to Bosasa, and now he’s not here any more to tell his version of events. It’s a major setback for the investigation.”
African News Agency (ANA)