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The Bosasa billions: Smoke, mirrors and Agrizzi

2019-09-01 20:25

In the week that Bosasa head Gavin Watson died in a car crash, a new book by James-Brent Styan and Paul Vecchiatto recounts Angelo Agrizzi’s corruption allegations against his former boss.

But the authors also found that there was a counternarrative constructed by supporters of Watson who claimed he was an innocent man of deep faith.

This edited extract outlines claims that Agrizzi’s goal was to capture Bosasa.

The Bosasa Billions: How the ANC Sold its Soul for Braaipacks, Booze and Bags of Cash by James-Brent Styan and Paul Vecchiatto

Lapa Publishers

260 pages

R239 at takealot.com

Angelo Agrizzi had always plotted to take over control of Bosasa by engineering a reputation crisis at the firm, alleged Jared Watson, a nephew of Gavin Watson. Additionally, he claims he suspects Agrizzi stole millions from the company.

These claims summarise the gist of the counter-narrative to Agrizzi’s bombshell testimony at the state capture commission. Sources, some of them close to the Watson family, paint a completely different picture of the goings-on at Bosasa and question the motives of Agrizzi and some of his fellow whistle-blowers.

“The Bosasa state capture story is all smoke and mirrors. This is, in fact, one of the greatest cases of industrial espionage ever. It is a case of insider capture, not state capture,” says one insider who chose to remain anonymous. The source spent years in the senior ranks at Bosasa, and describes Agrizzi as “vindictive and a schoolyard bully”.

At least one witness who testified under oath at the commission appeared to share these sentiments. Peet Venter, the former accountant and auditor for the group, stated that Agrizzi wanted Bosasa, now trading as African Global Group (AGG), to surrender a large part of its business to a grouping that included Agrizzi and fellow senior employees Andries van Tonder, Leon van Tonder and Frans Vorster.

When this did not happen, they “planned to take Bosasa/AGG and Gavin Watson down”.

Venter stated that he had been called to Agrizzi’s house in November 2017, where he met with Agrizzi and Andries van Tonder.

“It was clear that Mr Agrizzi wanted to destroy Mr Watson. I was told I had to type a statement to reveal the illegal activities of Mr Watson and that they would assist me in doing so.”

Read: Bosasa boss, state capture mastermind: Just who was Gavin Watson? 

Venter said he signed a statement – that he alleged was initially prepared by him but completed and edited by Agrizzi – because he was scared. Venter stated in his affidavit that he received many threats about his career from Agrizzi in November and December 2017.

These were allegedly made in an attempt to intimidate and blackmail him into signing the statement.

“Mr Agrizzi used Telegram [Messenger] messages [an electronic messaging platform] with a very short self-destruct timer [the messages would disappear in seconds]. I cannot recall the exact wording, but it was something like ‘you better make the right decision otherwise you will go down with Watson’.”

In December 2017, Venter again met with the two men at a restaurant close to Lanseria Airport north of Johannesburg.

“Mr Agrizzi showed me a flowchart indicating his step-by-step action plan ... to take over some of the contracts from Bosasa, or alternatively how he will sabotage Bosasa. Mr Agrizzi made various changes to the first affidavit [statement] that I had initially prepared. I signed the affidavit under duress. Mr Agrizzi then became upset with the fact that I had walked away from him and he started blackmailing me. The final blow was when Mr Agrizzi released a copy of my unsigned and later my signed affidavit. A copy of the unsigned affidavit was sent to my then employer in August 2018. I was immediately suspended and later resigned.”

Angelo Agrizzi (left) with Gavin Watson after a court hearing against the Mail & Guardian regarding several incriminating stories published against them. Picture: Oupa Nkosi

These comments were made in a second affidavit that Venter had submitted to the commission.

His initial affidavit had been submitted earlier by Agrizzi as part of his collection of evidence. In the appendices to Venter’s second affidavit, he included the flowchart plans he had allegedly been shown by Agrizzi in December 2017.

It appears to detail a plan targeting Bosasa.

At the top of one page is a box with the words “negotiations 15 December 2017”. The flow splits into two streams, “Successful” and “Unsuccessful”.

Under the heading “Unsuccessful” there are several “triggers”, including “social media”, “banks”, “auditors” and “politicians”, with an extra label stating “opposition parties”.

The documents further include a detailed media plan, which proposed having a news article published each week for 14 weeks, as well as planned leaks to Carte Blanche, AfriForum, Corruption Watch, the EFF and the DA.

Some of the Bosasa-related information to be leaked appears to relate to bribes and pay-offs, tax issues and other fraudulent activities.

According to Venter, these documents were prepared at least as early as December 2017 and the issues raised in them correlate with the revelations that Agrizzi, Van Tonder and Vorster made to the commission in 2019.

The end goal, judging by the documents, seems to be a criminal investigation of matters including racketeering, collusion and bribery.

Under another title, “Ramifications”, it is suggested that the directorate of Bosasa/AGG, including Watson, could be sequestrated, blacklisted, receive a criminal record and have limited future employment prospects.

It reads as if a massive takedown of the company and its senior directors was on the cards.

A recording that appears to substantiate the existence of a plot to take over Bosasa from Watson also exists.

In response to a long list of questions and requests for comment, the Watson family were largely unavailable and unresponsive, with two exceptions.

In May 2019, Watson’s daughter Lindsay, who was also head of legal services at the Bosasa group, said the following: “Thank you for your questions, we have unfortunately been advised not to answer any questions at this stage.”

Another Watson family member, who does not want to be identified, stated the family had nothing to add and saw no point in making public comments on the matters being aired.

“The ship has sailed, the horse has bolted. It matters not what the family says or Gavin Watson says, even if it is all denials. The public and the media’s minds are made up. Obviously, at first a number of people wanted to respond to Agrizzi’s evidence to the commission, knowing full well he was lying and to protect the company and the 4 500 employees, but sadly there was no value in responding. The rules of the commission dictate that anyone [to be] mentioned in the commission should be given two weeks’ notice to respond, however, this was not afforded to anyone [at Bosasa]. Because of this, no one would have been able to respond immediately to Agrizzi. One would have to submit an affidavit to the commission and then wait and see if the commission would allow you to appear. The first time anyone [in the Watson family] knew of Agrizzi approaching the commission was when we saw him on TV,” the family member said.

“The family was never informed that their names were going to be mentioned and never given an opportunity to appear before the inquiry. One or two members of the family and other affected parties, including Kevin Wakeford, have submitted detailed affidavits to the commission. They have not been called to testify or appear, yet Agrizzi has been called to testify twice.”

Former Bosasa exec Angelo Agrizzi testifying at the state capture commission. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/ Netwerk24

The family member continued: “The immediate effect [of Agrizzi’s testimony] was the banks closed the business accounts. No bank would accept Bosasa/[AGG] as a client and a business cannot survive without a bank. You cannot pay suppliers or salaries and wages, and you cannot accept payments from clients. Effectively, you do not have to liquidate because you are insolvent, you have to liquidate so that you can get access to another bank account again. And if you move into voluntary liquidation, then all your clients have a right to cancel all their contracts with you. So, effectively, a business is destroyed in a matter of days while the commission may only give you an opportunity to appear before it months down the line. Within days, Bosasa had already been found guilty in a trial by media. It was effectively over.”

Agrizzi responds

In the book The Bosasa Billions, Agrizzi is quoted as laughing off the allegation that he had wanted to take over the business.

“With R250 million of tax fraud there? It is unsaveable,” he said.

When asked to elaborate on this claim, Agrizzi said that Bosasa had a growing tax headache for years.

“Tax losses were moved around the business [in a way] which one cannot do. So the hole is quite big at the moment.”

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December 15 2019