We live today, and have always lived in a strange society. Morality, regarding racist discrimination, and morality, regarding the misappropriation of public funds, do not seem to be related. Those who have gained stature as fighters for freedom are sometimes remarkably free with the money of others. When a dozen years after the advent of democracy a provincial representative of the ruling party spent R100 000 of tax payer money on a dinner for friends no explanation was thought necessary. This was only one of an almost endless procession of such cases since that time. It is all the more interesting when viewed against the behaviour of leaders in the Apartheid government. The most conservative and racist of those national leaders were probably Strijdom and Verwoerd. Both kept a stranglehold, enforced by police and military, on black ambitions, but neither ever used public funds for private purposes. Strijdom, seemingly an out and out white supremacist, would not even use his government car to attend a political meeting. As for Verwoerd, the closed-minded prophet of Grand Apartheid, his estate was measured in a few hundred thousand at his death, not millions. It was only when that party started to get close to the possibility of granting rights to all and losing control of the fiscus, that the fingers of its apparently more enlightened members, not its worst racists, got into tills that should have been off-limits to them.

The wild expenditure of other people’s money had begun inside the liberation movement long before the current ruling party came to power. Some who served under Joe Modise, commander in chief of the revolutionary army and therefore a hero of the armed struggle, have told of being sent from Zambia into great danger in South Africa to buy the luxury goods he desired. It seems there was no decent whiskey available near their Lusaka headquarters in those days.

No part of South Africa’s strangeness is more unusual than the case of the Watson brothers of Nelson Mandela Bay. Four rugby playing, gym-fit, born-again Christians: Gavin, Ronnie, Daniel (“Cheeky”) and Valence were all genuine heroes of the liberation struggle. It is widely accepted by those who followed his career during his playing days that Cheeky could have played international rugby except that he chose to play for a township side, an action that automatically ruled him out of contention. Township players often slept over at their home, an activity that contravened the Group Areas Act. The Watsons stood up to the government fearlessly.

For years the old government’s dirty tricks department seemed to have a special section devoted to the Watsons. At one point their house was dynamited, curtains billowing across the street outside, and the entire building consumed in the fire that followed. To add insult to injury, Valence, Ronnie and Cheeky were charged with the crime, which included fraud and attempted murder. Only Valence was found guilty, a finding that was set aside by a higher court. A few years later a certain Stephen Burnett tried to assassinate Ronnie in a hotel in Gaborone, Botswana. The assailant was found guilty in that country and imprisoned.

But when democracy came along, Gavin became CEO of Bosasa, a company that seemed designed to make use of the new looting opportunities the non-racial regime offered. In time, he was being investigated by the police over R1.7 billion in questionable contracts from the prisons department. Apparently between 2003 and 2018 Bosasa had won government tenders worth R12 billion and it seemed some of them may not have been legitimate. During that time they donated R3 million to the ANC’s 2014 election campaign.

In 2019 Gavin, still Bosasa CEO at the time, died unexpectedly in a motor accident. A private pathology report claimed he was already dead at the time of the accident. When he died, what or who killed him and why is anyone’s guess. His was a classic case of heroism and corruption in the same package.

Our Strange Society