Former president Jacob Zuma addressing mourners at Gavin Watson's funeral on September 2 2019. Picture: GRAEME HOSKEN
Former president Jacob Zuma addressing mourners at Gavin Watson's funeral on September 2 2019. Picture: GRAEME HOSKEN

Former president Jacob Zuma said Gavin Watson’s death was mysterious and could be linked to a possible geopolitical assassination — but added he hoped that was not the case.

“The Watson family was a big asset of the ANC. The ANC had, and still has, many enemies who see this country as a geographically strategic asset. The enemy has targeted ANC supporters and comrades before. Many have died recently. I hope comrade Gavin is not one of those,” Zuma told mourners at Watson’s funeral in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday.

From the podium, Zuma outlined what he sees as the dangers many strategic ANC supporters faced in the past and present. “Before we got our freedom in 1994, this family was targeted. The Watson family has been important in setting up the country as a thriving democracy and were hated by the enemy. When we got our freedom in 1994 I thought this chapter had passed. But I and many others fear that it may not have and our supporters are being targeted.”

Zuma said he is worried about the way many comrades are dying, “particularly knowing, as I do, how some intelligence organisations are operating”.

“I hope the investigation [into Watson’s death] will prove us wrong, especially those who are worried. The [death] report the family gave us has a lot of gaps about how Comrade Gavin died. Since the investigation is still ongoing, I hope there will be a report that will satisfy why some cadres are dying,” he said.

Gavin died at a point when his name has been raised, when he was preparing to go to the state-capture commission to respond to matters which needed to be cleared. We are living in an era that is very strange, where those who fought apartheid and were vilified, and those who were not vilified, have been turned the other way around; where those fighting to bring about freedom are, today, made out to be the worst people.”

Hundreds of people gathered to pay their last respects to the late Gavin Watson in Port Elizabeth on September 3 2019.

‘ANC's intelligence command’

 The former president said many of those who had died were close to him in the ANC’s intelligence command, and had an understanding of where SA came from and was going.

“SA is a geographically strategic country, with a history seeing men driving machines across oceans. At the level of the global economy and politics, SA is very important, and there are people who felt SA must not be allowed not to be under their control.

“They have spent time identifying those they believe are obstacles and [that they] hate and who need to be removed. I hope we are not dealing with this case here, particularly because the Watson family was under the spotlight of our enemies for many years.

“Suddenly we have got to the stage where a commission was used to further deal with this family. I hope, sincerely, there will be explanations of many of these things,” he said.

Zuma took to the podium at Watson’s funeral, leading mourners in the song Senzeni na? (What have we done?).

“We are here to pay our last respects to this extraordinary man who comes from an extraordinary family in this province and in this city,” Zuma said, adding that he regarded Watson as a friend, and that he was one of few people who had been to his home in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal.

Jacob Zuma sat in the front row among family members at Gavin Watson's funeral. Picture: KATHRYN KIMBERLEY
Jacob Zuma sat in the front row among family members at Gavin Watson's funeral. Picture: KATHRYN KIMBERLEY

‘The big man’

Brother Valence Watson drew laughter from mourners when he said Zuma’s arrival caused his speech “to go out of the window with the arrival of the big man”.

“We all know the person Gavin was and how close family was to his heart, including the Bosasa family,” said Valence, whose address in Xhosa and English received cheers and loud applause from mourners. “We are here today to say, Hamba Kahle. God took Gavin at the time God appointed. God’s timing is perfect.”

Valence said those gathered at the memorial were all leaders who followed Watson’s non-racial beliefs. “We are in the ANC and the Christian family because we are comfortable there.”

Earlier, mourners ululated as Zuma arrived, bringing dignitaries, including Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane, to their feet. Zuma took his seat in the front row, next to Watson’s daughter, Lindsey. 

Zuma arrived just after Nelson Mandela Bay executive mayor Mongameli Bobani praised Watson for his role in the anti-apartheid struggle, saying he was vilified for supporting the ANC.

“A great son of the Eastern Cape has come home. It is right he is laid to rest here. He made his footprints here and will lay his head here,” Bobani told mourners. He said Watson played a remarkable role in the anti-apartheid struggle and the family paid a heavy price for their association with the ANC.

“He was vilified for this. Outrage increased in that [family members] were white, farmers and highly talented rugby players. Their name will go down in the history of this country, especially in their fight for human rights. The apartheid government learnt that if you strike the Watson family, you strike a rock. We, as the people of the Eastern Cape, salute the Watson family for their role in this fight,” said Bobani.

Mourner Kholiswa Makalima said she had grown up in the Eastern Cape knowing and revering the “mlungu” family who spoke Xhosa. “Everyone [in the Eastern Cape] knew the Watsons. For us, the family has been a strong anchor both in the province and the country.”

Makalima said Watson’s death was a major loss to the province and SA, politically, socially and from a business perspective.

“Watson made a major contribution to South Africa, especially through his company’s youth centres. They were pillars of strength, also in sport. He lived a balanced and good life and really helped this province and country.”

Car crash

Watson died when his car crashed at high speed into a bridge pillar last week within the OR Tambo International Airport precinct. A team of specialised accident investigators is probing the cause of the accident.

Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Feather Market Centre, with ANC flags draped across the podium and party stalwarts and supporters breaking out in praise songs. Photographs of the businessman adorned the centre.

Watson and his company were embroiled in controversy earlier this year when his former right-hand man and confidant, Angelo Agrizzi, along with other former executives, blew the whistle at the state-capture commission of inquiry about bribery operations the company allegedly used to secure R12bn worth of government contracts.

Watson died a day before he was due to testify before a Sars  inquiry into his tax affairs. The inquiry resulted from the information that became public after Agrizzi’s testimony to the state-capture commission.

Watson, who was an ANC funder, has been hailed as a hero of the political party.