Bosasa and the banality of greed

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the tawdry mechanics of corruption being exposed at the Zondo Commission


The presidential proclamation, issued exactly a year ago, made clear the gravity of the situation. A full judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, headed by the deputy chief justice of the Republic.

The first weeks of evidence dealt mainly with the machinations of the Gupta-clan cronies of our euphemistically “recalled” former president, Jacob Zuma. Although we are as yet a long way from any formal finding by Judge Raymond Zondo’s commission, the testimony by cabinet ministers, civil servants and business people has so far pretty much borne out the analysis by the media of tens of thousands of leaked email correspondence, which originally uncovered the plot.

The evidence was of a brazen and audacious strategy. A tight, politically connected cabal attempting to capture control of every important public sector entity, as well as to subvert the constitutionally laid-down processes of executive government, all with the single objective of enriching fabulously the conspirators.

If this turns out to be the gist of the commission’s eventual findings, we should not underestimate the scale of the disaster that South Africa has narrowly averted — a calamity dodged only because of the indefatigable efforts of a small band of journalists and the courageous integrity of a handful of public servants and government ministers. This would arguably be the most blatant attempt known, by commercial interests to seize control of the democratic government of a large country. 

If such actions had been carried out for ideological reasons, rather than just avarice, we would call it out for what it is — treason. Unfortunately, we seem to be more forgiving of a slow coup motivated by monetary greed than we would be of a swift one motivated by political beliefs, even if the end result is exactly the same.

The evidence starting last week before Zondo, that of Angelo Agrizzi, former chief operating officer of the facilities management and security company Bosasa, marks a distinct change in tenor.  Although the evidence spotlights yet another business family, that of one of the Watson brothers, it is very different from that regarding the Guptas. 

Although the testimony still deals with the highest echelons of government, it is now less about the grand strategy of state capture and more about the tawdry mechanics of corruption. 

The Guptas were Johnny-come-latelies to this country, international business predators with an unsavoury reputation in their homeland of India. They sensed fresh and easy prey on the SA veld and swooped in, literally, to commandeer Waterkloof Airbase as the first staging post of their pillage.

The four Watson brothers, with similarly unsavoury reputations, are local yokels, seemingly content with narrower horizons than those of the Guptas. Prominent political activists hailing from the Eastern Cape, the cradle of the African National Congress, they quickly parlayed their Struggle credentials into empowerment related business contracts.

Two of the brothers became involved in the murky mining empire of Brett Kebble, and a third, Cheeky, was last year charged in connection with a R200m fraud involving the Nelson Mandela Bay public transport system. The youngest brother, Gavin, became the CEO of Bosasa and its many subsidiaries.

The Guptas, on the face of it, wanted to run the entire ship of state, after successfully suborning it’s captain. Gavin Watson, on the face of it, couldn’t give a toss whose hand was on the tiller of state, as long as its owner was indentured to his company.

Bosasa, now reinvented under the moniker African Global Operations, made billions of rand from allegedly rigged state contracts.

The evidence given by Aggrizi, flanked by four bodyguards because of death threats, is as yet untested. While he personally benefited greatly from the corruption that he is exposing, Aggrizi says he became a whistleblower because of a Damascene conversion, following a near-death experience. 

He claims that Bosasa budgeted around R6m a month for payoffs, including — according to the testimony so far —  to three top National Prosecuting Authority staff, to three former Correctional Services commissioners and their chief financial officer, to African National Congress parliamentarians, and to top civil servants. Bosasa, supposedly without the knowledge of the president,  gave Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign to capture the party leadership R500,000, a sum that has since been returned. Bosasa, for years, gave former president Jacob Zuma’s personal foundation a monthly R300,000, money that as yet remains unacknowledged and unreturned.

It’s compelling and convincing stuff. Aggrizi has videos of the monthly payoff banknotes being packed and stacked, there’s his now instantly infamous little black book that lists every corruptee and the sums they received, and the man possesses the prodigious memory for detail that gives his evidence a certain stamp of authenticity. Liars usually favour of vague generalities over specifics.

If true, this was corruption at an industrial scale, executed with managerial efficiency. It was, explained Aggrizi, better to lease on a monthly instalment the souls they corrupted, rather than buying them with lump sums. Once dependent on the monthly cash, they were committed for life.

Sometimes, Aggrizi conceded, things went expensively awry. Cabinet minister Nomvula Mokonyane, fondly dubbed the “Energiser Bunny” and who, because of her close ties to Zuma was the go-to person to sort out “protection”, supposedly was on a R50,000 a month retainer. But when her usefulness waned, the Bosasa executives contemplated paying less because she was “no longer delivering value for money”. 

Aggrizi says Mokonyane’s annual “Christmas goodies” list was: 4 cases of spirits, an assortment of premium-brand brandies and other high-end spirits, 40 mixed cases of beer, 8 lambs, 200kg of beef and 12 cases of frozen chicken. There was no partridge in a pear tree, but Aggrizi did have to repeatedly provide Mokonyane’s daughter with a replacement Audi A3 Cabriolet, because she kept crashing.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, describing the terrifying normality of those who operated the Nazi death machine — equally applicable to those running the Nationalist apartheid machine — wrote of the banality of evil. Aggrizi’s testimony about the ANC corruption machine describes the banality of greed.

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