Gavin Watson will probably go down in history as the man who masterminded a huge part of the state capture scandal that rocked South Africa.
But the former boss of Bosasa, who allegedly kept millions of rands in a safe to dish out when he needed it, was also once heralded as an anti-apartheid activist.
He could speak fluent isiXhosa, caught the eye of the apartheid state police as he played rugby in the township with his brothers, and set up businesses focused on black economic empowerment.
The head of African Global Operations, Papa Leshabane, confirmed the news of Watson’s death on Monday afternoon.
“It is with a profound sense of loss and deep sadness that we confirm the passing of Gavin Watson. We would like to urge the public and the media to give the family space and time to mourn his passing privately. The family will not be conducting any interviews,” Leshabane said.
When news broke this morning that Watson had been killed in a car accident, the authorities were mum, preferring not to comment until the family had been notified.
According to the police the 73-year-old man, believed to be Watson, was driving into the airport precinct when “he allegedly lost control of his vehicle and collided with a concrete pillar holding up a highway bridge.”
Watson was pronounced dead on the scene by paramedics and a case of culpable homicide was opened by the police service for further investigation.
Police spokesperson Colonel Katlego Mogale told City Press that, while the identity was yet to be revealed as the next-of-kin was not yet notified, the accident took place at about 5:30am and the driver, who was in a Toyota Corolla, was alone.
Watson’s name became a household one during the Zondo commission of inquiry, which was hearing allegations of state capture.
The revelations were first brought to the country’s attention by former Bosasa chief operations officer Angelo Agrizzi, who apparently had a serious falling-out with Watson, who was his boss and chief executive of management solutions company Bosasa.
It was during Agrizzi’s testimony the country learnt of the close relationship Watson had with former president Jacob Zuma. Agrizzi painted Zuma as an intellectual dwarf who was dancing to Watson’s money-power tune.
Agrizzi was the Hawks’ key witness to bringing down Watson.
Read: Bosasa accused in court as case against Watson builds
Group CEO Gavin Watson standing between executive directors Joe Gumede and Papa Leshabane. Picture: prleap.com
City Press reported earlier this year that Hawks discussions with Agrizzi had been going on for a long time before he appeared before the Zondo commission.
“The discussions have been ongoing for a long time before Agrizzi could testify before the Zondo commission of inquiry. There are talks of giving him immunity and of him turning state witness in return for testifying against Watson,” said a security cluster source familiar with discussions.
Agrizzi himself faces charges of corruption, money laundering and fraud, and appeared in the Pretoria Specialised Commercial Crimes Unit with other Bosasa executives.
Watson allegedly offered R50 million in start-up capital to his former right-hand man to buy his silence.
Read: Agrizzi turns down Watson’s R50 million shut up deal
This offer came three days after Agrizzi threatened to go public with details of alleged corruption that took place during his 18 years at the company.
The Bosasa boss allegedly tried to convince Agrizzi to change his mind at a meeting on August 25 last year.
Agrizzi has made some explosive allegations at the Zondo commission about the “racketeering, corruption and money laundering” that allegedly took place there over the “last 18 years”.
But Watson and his brothers were lauded as struggle icons during the apartheid era before falling foul of the law.
The four brothers – Dan, Valence, Ronnie and Gavin – who were born on a farm in the Eastern Cape, spoke fluent isiXhosa and were raised by a preacher who taught them that everybody was equal. They have always been regarded as struggle giants in the Eastern Cape.
Read: Bosasa CEO Gavin and his brothers – who are the Watsons?
After 1994, they immersed themselves in the business of black economic empowerment.
Gavin’s brothers Valence and Ronnie joined the Kebble mining empire, while Gavin started Bosasa, which had a number of subsidiaries – including Sondolo IT, Phezulu Fencing and Leading Prospect Trading.
The Bosasa group won government tenders to provide food and security to prisons, to feed and transport refugees at the Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp, and to provide security at the country’s courts and airports.
A rugby official, familiar with their forays into Port Elizabeth’s townships to play for Spring Rose rugby club, told City Press earlier this year about their willingness to go against the grain.
“It was totally unthinkable what they did,” he said.
Gavin Watson receives the Trailblazer of the Year 2015 award in Sandton for his work in promoting transformation and empowerment in business and society, Watson has always championed women and young people. Picture: bosasaydc.com
“They could have been charged for being in the township, but they did it anyway. They got a lot of attention from the Special Branch for that. But at the time, you could not make a more anti-racist statement than to play rugby in the townships.
“Can you imagine the social backlash they received from the white community? I believe that stalked Cheeky when he became EP president – he was never forgiven among the whites, and it showed in his failure to get sponsorship for the team from corporate business in Port Elizabeth.”
There was talk at the time that the Watsons’ struggle had less to do with altruism than it did with protecting their men’s fashion shop, which sold mostly to black customers, at a time when businesses were being burnt in the uprisings.
Said the official: “There will be a lot of people rejoicing about this [Gavin’s pending legal woes] because it would confirm a view they held back then. In a sense, this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”