In many ways 1994 was wonderful. It was the moment in our history when we turned away from a racist dispensation to the possibility of a democratic future. It was the moment when the door opened to the chance of all being only South Africans with no qualification as to race or group. But it was also the moment when formerly honourable activists and freedom fighters morphed their struggle credentials into vast amounts of money.
Among these, none are more colourful than the incredible Watson brothers of Port Elizabeth.
Good looking, gym-fit, charismatic, welldressed, rugby playing, born-again Christians, they were everything that the average pale-faced, unshaven, 40kg activist that populated the white left back in apartheid days, was not.
For those of us who knew them then and had since lost contact, the evidence of Angelo Agrizzi, a man in every way different to the Watsons, was a cause for astonishment. Millions paid in bribes; billions invoiced; Gavin Watson’s alleged control of Jacob Zuma; the management of the notorious Lindela Repatriation Centre that was accused of treating people without dignity or compassion: none of this fitted the picture of the Watsons that resided in our minds.
|Daniel 'Cheeky' Watson|
In the years between 1965 and 1973 there was always at least one Watson in the Graeme College first rugby team, sometimes more than one. To say they were the stars of the school is to be guilty of the most complete understatement. Old boys of the school, former masters and coaches, if they remember no one else from those days, they cannot forget Gavin, Ronnie, Valence and Cheeky, most of all Cheeky. He was the one on his way to playing wing for the Springboks. Anyone who knew anything about rugby could tell you that.
The boys grew up on a farm near Somerset East. Their father was a lay preacher who taught them that all people should be treated equally and that they should give their hearts to the Lord. For many years they followed both injunctions to the letter. Their mother was a nice Eastern Cape lady who did not want her boys getting into trouble and she just knew, quite rightly, that they were on their way to big trouble.
All four spoke Xhosa fluently. For whatever reason, the Eastern Cape is the one part of South Africa – and the Xhosas, the one African people, to have really taken to rugby. Cheeky was on his way to the big time in rugby when he and Valence, also an outstanding rugby player, were invited to coach in the townships. They accepted. The facilities were poor, but the enthusiasm and talent of those they trained, made up for that.
Their coaching raised eyebrows. It was not the sort of thing that the rugby stars of those days took part in. But the real split arose when Cheeky and Valence turned out for the Kwaru club in a league that, till that time, had fielded only black players. Eastern Province was not a part of the country that produced many international rugby stars, and the local authorities appealed to them to avoid this course of action that was sure to end in disaster.
But by now this was a matter of principle. The Watsons had made friends in the townships and hated the thought that they were expected to live according to the racist rules that governed the country. Ronnie and Valence had gone further and were acting as underground intelligence gatherers for the ANC.
Port Elizabeth is a small city. It was smaller then. Local celebrities were known by everyone. The Watsons could not walk down a street without being spotted. When they went out together, four rugged, striking-looking young men in a formidable quartet, even someone who knew nothing about them was bound to take notice. But now the attention they received was not always desirable. They were roundly despised by the traditional rugby establishment, they were on the security police watch list and most of white Port Elizabeth viewed them with some suspicion.
|Gavin Watson and Jacob Zuma|
An attempt was made on Cheeky’s life. On a visit to Gaborone, a certain Stephen Barnett entered his room, carrying a gun. Cheeky disarmed him, in the process doing damage to Barnett’s nose. His assailant told Cheeky he was a member of Britain’s Special Air Services, but in court he changed his story, saying that he was a member of South Africa’s security services. The Botswana court sentenced him to five years in prison.
The family home in which all four brothers lived was bombed. According to people interviewed by the newspapers, the sight was spectacular. Curtains billowed across the road while the building was shattered beyond any hope of repair. Their enemies asserted that they had done it themselves to collect the insurance money, but all who knew them thought it far more likely that the security police were responsible. These were the days when many activists died at the hands of the security police, a fact attested to by their later testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Valence, Ronnie and Cheeky were charged with arson, fraud and attempted murder.
Valence alone was found guilty, but the next year his sentence was set aside.
By the time this observer went to visit them in the late 1980s their position in the community was set in stone. They were outcasts, but of the most unlikely kind. Outcasts do not usually come across as confident and self-assured, they do not usually disarm would-be assassins, they are not usually seen working out in a local gym and they are not usually the kind that bullies are afraid to pick on. They had a shop of which the clientele was almost entirely black. It started out as a men’s outfitter, but turned into something close to a general dealer during the retail boycotts of those days. The boycotting of white-owned shops did not apply to them.
Our meeting was over lunch, something they insisted on. I got the impression they wanted to show that, no matter what their enemies did, they were not suffering. Then, as now, Gavin did most of the talking. I learnt that they had lived together in their family home before its destruction. Now, they shared a big flat, all four brothers, their wives and children. Apart from the cost saving they, and their womenfolk, must have felt more secure living together.
At lunch wine was offered. I accepted, a bottle was opened, but to my surprise and confusion I was the only one with a glass. I was going to be drinking alone. It was my only contact with the born-again Christian side of their personalities. The bottle went back, with only one glass less from its contents. Since then, if offered wine, I always ask, are you drinking?
They were sure of everything in those days. Cheeky was the best wing in the country, Valence was as good as any flank playing the game, the security police had destroyed their home, their business was on the way to great success, Nelson Mandela was soon going to be freed and the country was going to have a democratic dispensation. Most of their convictions have since turned out to be true, or at least partly true.
Gavin picked up the tab in the restaurant. As we got up to leave the proprietor came hopefully forward, but blanched as Gavin suggested under his breath that he put it on their tab. I got the clear impression this had happened before. But the restaurateur did as he was told.
In 1994 the entire landscape changed. Sanlam had already set the stage by donating Metropolitan Life to black shareholders. Black Economic Empowerment first became a fashion, then a necessary device if a business intended to survive. Although they are white, the Watsons, because of their history, fit perfectly into the tortuous caverns of BEE. Cheeky was the one who stayed close to rugby, becoming head of the Eastern Province Rugby Union, an organisation that at one time would have nothing to do with him. Sadly, things did not go well. He was accused of running the union on a patronage basis and with a lack of accountability. In 2014 and 2015 the union was not audited, and was eventually liquidated by the players themselves for not receiving their salaries. When he finally was forced out, the union had just R31 in its bank account.
Cheeky was never able to secure the necessary level of sponsorship from Port Elizabeth businesses. It seemed that old enmities had survived. In 2017 he was arrested on a fraud charge relating to municipal money. At the time of writing he is about to appear in court, with three co-accused. According to allegations, money intended for the Integrated Public Transport System was used fraudulently.
His son, Luke, playing rugby in the democratic era, was seen by some as the best young player in the country. But he too was dogged by the family curse. Forced into the national side by political friends against the will of the team management, he cut a lonely and isolated figure, something that does not work in a team sport. John Smit, the national captain, referred to him as “a cancer in the team”. Eventually, he left the country to play overseas. Rugby journalist Gavin Rich expressed “sorrow that we may never get to see the real Luke Watson, only the one that has been created in his father’s image”.
But the one who has seized the media’s attention in recent days is Gavin, who back in 2000 became the CEO of Bosasa. The company is now called African Global Operations and on its website it is described as “a multi-faceted group that has developed many of its own specialised techniques for business services”.
For years their management of the Lindela Repatriation Centre, an entity owned by the Department of Home Affairs and in which the ANC Women’s League has shares, drew angry criticism. According to Agrizzi’s testimony before the Zondo Commission, the company was paid R93.6 million a year by the Department of Correctional Services for their management of the centre. Of that, according to Agrizzi, R4.6m was paid out in bribes. Between 2004 and 2006 they invoiced that department to the tune of almost R1 billion. Apart from corruption, the centre has repeatedly been criticised for overcrowding, abuse of detainees, feeding them inadequately, and bad management. In the 2012 protest at the centre, rubber bullets and truncheons were used on the refugees.
While deportation is supposed to take 48 hours, some have been detained there for far longer. Rumours abound of people being held in custody at Lindela for as much as a year. A Malawian gardener working in Johannesburg told me his passport was taken from him and never returned.
The Watsons’ most recent venture, a prawn farm in the Coega Industrial Development Zone, like so many of their enterprises, seems to have been assisted by political friends. Environmental oversight seems to have been ignored almost completely. Megan Taplin of SANParks said the farm was a threat to the marine area next to Coega: “The proposed species is not indigenous to the Indian Ocean and presents a risk of invasion.”
Sea Ark Holdings, the company that holds their interests in the farm, is a senior member of an organisation called the Conservation of National Resources. Other members include the National Trappers Association, the Japan Whaling Association, the International Fur Trade Association and Monsanto, the notorious seed producer. All of them are under continual attack by national and international environmental groups. According to testimony heard at the Zondo Commission, apart from their business at Lindela, Bosasa has won tenders worth billions of Rands to provide food and transport to the Department of Correctional Services, security to the Airports Company of South Africa and services to the Department of Justice. According to a report in Beeld in 2006, Sondolo, a Bosasa affiliate, wrote a large part of a Department of Correctional Services tender themselves, after which it was awarded to them.
It is unlikely that anyone knows exactly how much money has been paid to Bosasa and its affiliates by government departments, but according to an analysis by the Mail & Guardian, between 2003 and 2019 Bosasa invoiced government departments to the tune of R12,282,374,003 (over R12 billion). Judging by the amounts distributed to those who could help to keep the contractual wheels turning, this seems plausible. The testimony before Judge Zondo went on and on, as former Watson people unburdened themselves. Agrizzi alone spent a week on the stand.
In 2014 Gavin was being investigated by the Hawks for allegedly trying to bribe Correctional Services officials for a R1.7bn tender. Bosasa paid almost R1.2bn to settle the legal bill of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, former SABC chief. At one point they were paying R300,000 in cash monthly to both Jacob Zuma and Dudu Myeni, an associate of his. A R500,000 donation was made to Cyril Ramaphosa’s election campaign. A total of R3m was paid to finance events of the Jacob Zuma Foundation. A fence worth R300,000 was paid to enclose Gwede Mantashe’s home. Many other leading government people have received very large cash gifts from Bosasa. Some have had their houses fitted with state-of-theart burglar alarm systems. Among the beneficiaries, Thabang Makwetla repeatedly asked for the bill, Gavin simply refused to provide it.
There is no doubting the reality of the role the Watson brothers played in the liberation struggle. It is possible the country owes them a debt for their courage and the example they set in those days. It is a tragedy that the events that followed allowed them to reduce themselves to their current level. It is a characteristic of our times that people who were once willing to risk their lives for what they believed to be right have allowed themselves to be sucked into the same vortex of greed and power. When the history of the Watson brothers is finally written one hopes the full picture will be revealed, not just the catastrophe of more recent years.
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