Angelo Agrizzi, Inside the Belly of the Beast: The Real Bosasa Story ([N.p.]: Truth be Told Publishing, 2020)
TWO photographs: one shows a slim, 16-year-old trainee chef; the other, a corpulent ageing man with a Ferrari in a garage full of expensive memorabilia. What happened to Angelo Agrizzi in the intervening years is a quintessential South African story.
His revelations centre on Gavin Watson, the Watson family and the facilities management company Bosasa. Agrizzi argues that the day he signed on for what was then a catering company called Dyambu, he made a ‘pact with the devil’. Dyambu was supposedly a black empowerment company linked to figures in the ANC Women’s League, but in fact controlled by Watson. This was an early sign of duplicity. The company it became, a massive outsourcing outfit most closely associated with the Department of Correctional Services, Agrizzi describes as a cult.
Watson came from a high-profile anti-apartheid Eastern Cape family notable for participation in non-racial rugby, although at that stage he had the lowest profile of the four brothers. The family’s background involved fundamentalist religion and business. According to Agrizzi, Watson could not read a financial statement and his skills lay in other, less orthodox directions. One was leveraging his political connections and in the early years when Bosasa dealt with mining companies he agitated among the unions.
Personal loyalty was paramount to Watson and rewarded richly as long as his approval was retained. But he was a supreme manipulator who seemingly felt he owned his employees, demeaning and humiliating them publicly. One tactic was to criticise their weight, ironic given his chief operating officer’s girth. Agrizzi variously describes Watson as contemptuous, obnoxious, arrogant and evasive with the character of an ‘over-controlling narcissist’. To the reader of this book he comes across as infantile.
Was Bosasa a cult? This description is probably overwrought, but it undoubtedly displayed cultish features and Watson behaved like a messiah. Agrizzi omits the religious component, but it was a key factor in the company and Watson was swayed by, and funded, fundamentalist pastors. His divine plan was also influenced by his deluded mistress on the payroll, Lindie Gouws, whom Agrizzi describes as a ‘melodramatic mess’. It is no surprise to learn that Watson was a conspiracy theorist.
Agrizzi was Watson’s COO, and general dogsbody, for nearly twenty years. It would appear from his own evidence that he was good at his job, a multi-tasker and a very hard worker. And he provides enough evidence to suggest that Bosasa was a worthwhile company that disintegrated into a ‘machine of greed and corruption’. Aptly, Agrizzi describes this as a pandemic and it expanded as Bosasa branched out from prison catering into security – fencing, access control and internal communication.
Watson’s business methods ranged from devious to criminal. Shrewdly, he ensured his signature was rarely visible. He was adept at black economic empowerment (BEE) fronting and made sure he had a board of stooges. Tenders were pre-adjudicated and written by Bosasa for Bosasa (although this tactic was used by other companies too) or, in the case of fencing, subject to collusion. His behaviour over Ntsimbintle Mining was reprehensible and is subject still to litigation. Above all he was a master of bribery and went to extraordinary lengths to conceal material gifts such as cars and houses.
Cash bribery ran to R6 million per month and predictably he called this making deals. A large part of this sum went to Correctional Services employees, but Watson also reputedly bribed National Prosecuting Authority personnel. He himself would count notes in his vault, which became famous at the Zondo Commission. The wherewithal was acquired through laundering the takings of other companies so they could avoid bank charges. How auditors failed to question large fictitious purchases of alcohol and petrol begs broader questions. This bribery operation contained elements of farce with coded details entered into little black books.
Watson’s business acumen was often so low, with cavalier disregard for due diligence, that some of Bosasa’s investments amounted to reckless negligence. But he was shrewd enough to tie up the company in a complex web of trusts. The moment of truth came with questions raised in the press about the tender for prison cell televisions, which led to a Hawks (Special Investigative Unit) investigation in 2009 and a charge sheet naming a number of Bosasa employees – but not Watson. He added to a record of business crime by destroying and concealing evidence such as computers and invoice books. A key witness and his family were moved to the USA.
Agrizzi’s tipping point came when he discovered Watson had tried to cash in his life insurance when he was lying in ICU after heart surgery. In other words, it was a personal issue not one of the many matters of principle that should have caused him to go public years earlier. Instead, he continued to profit from the situation. Even after his resignation from Bosasa he was naively susceptible to pressure from the Watson family, on one occasion trapped into recorded racist indiscretions that caused him embarrassment before the Zondo Commission. At one stage Watson had 48 whistleblowers to contend with, although under intimidation and inducement not all stayed the course, and only a few testified before Zondo. On the first morning of Agrizzi’s appearance he pointed out to the commission that its building’s security systems were all Bosasa’s.
Agrizzi offers no new insights into the cause of Watson’s death outside OR Tambo Airport on 26 August 2019, the day before he was due to appear at a SARS inquiry. The usual theories are rehearsed and Agrizzi leaves the matter wide open by saying he feels Watson was too much of a narcissist to kill himself.
This book was ghost written by Phillipa Mitchell, presumably from recorded interviews. It provides an engaging read, but some of the anecdotes are superfluous. A novel feature is the inclusion of QR codes that take the reader to relevant video material online. As for Agrizzi, he seems to have been a victim of his own failings and materialist instincts. In the end he did the right thing under considerable stress, but was he a whistleblower? To the purist the answer is negative as he was not an innocent party. But as he points out, were it not for him a great deal about the Bosasa scandal would never have seen the light. This is true enough and definitions in this murky world of blowing whistles can be elusive. His explanation – that all humans have a ‘beast’ that resides within them –sounds unconvincingly like that of a man who spectacularly failed to control his own.
• The struggle years of the Watson family are covered in Kristin Williamson’s Brothers to Us: The Story of a Remarkable Family’s Fight against Apartheid (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1997). A thorough history of Bosasa is provided by Adriaan Basson in Blessed by Bosasa: Inside Gavin Watson’s State Capture Cult (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2019).