The car which the late Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson was driving is being taken by a truck after he died on the scene. His car hit a concrete pillar. Picture: Veli Nhlapo
The car which the late Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson was driving is being taken by a truck after he died on the scene. His car hit a concrete pillar. Picture: Veli Nhlapo

It’s a measure of how distrustful South Africans have become over the past decade that the immediate response to Gavin Watson’s death in a car crash this week was a rash of conspiracy theories. By contrast, when mining boss Brett Kebble was shot at the Atholl Oaklands overpass 14 years ago, the conventional thinking was that he’d been killed during an everyday Joburg hijacking.

Oh, how naive we were. How could we have ignored the possibility that he may have struck a deal with a bunch of hoods to have himself done in, so that his family could claim the insurance?

Because, in the weeks after Kebble’s death, that’s exactly the picture that slowly coalesced as the explanation for the JCI CEO’s death.

Certainly, there are striking similarities between the deaths of Kebble and Watson. Both had, before their deaths, been accused of heinous criminal conduct — large-scale fraud by Kebble for which he faced certain arrest; in the case of Watson, bribery and state capture that would have led to a trial.

In Watson’s case, the urgency was more immediate: he was due to attend an SA Revenue Service hearing this past Tuesday — he died on Monday — at which he would probably have been asked, for the first time, to admit or reject those accusations.

In the post-Zuma environment of paranoia, populist doublespeak and outright lies, it’s no surprise that few are willing to believe that Watson’s death, in a 5am car crash at OR Tambo International, was that simple. Who really killed him, was the question on everyone’s lips this week. Who wanted him silenced, or who helped him miraculously fake his own death? After all, if Kebble could orchestrate his own death and make it look like a hijacking, why wouldn’t there be a bigger story behind Watson’s demise?

The Watson family seem to feel there might be more to it. This week, they pushed for an "independent investigation" of the crash.

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Certainly there were unsettling coincidences in Watson’s death. But it speaks volumes that our first instinct is to seek out the conspiracy. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given that SA is emerging from a traumatic decade under the stewardship of a man who credulously hung on every word written by second-rate PIs, believing there to be a spy in every closet.

Academics say conspiracies are attractive as they "appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction". In an environment like the one SA is in now, where there is intensely polarised debate and factions fighting for control of the popular narrative, it’s easy to gravitate towards a sexy conspiracy that confirms our worst beliefs about our politicians.

As much as it is enticing to feel smarter than everyone else by connecting the dots, there are many dots that honestly shouldn’t be connected. Even if it’s less satisfying than the likeliest scenario: that Watson was travelling too fast, without a seatbelt, in a manual car when he typically drove an automatic, and now he’s dead.

A far more real issue, however, is whether Watson’s death will jeopardise the hunt for accountability. Let’s hope the Kebble legacy doesn’t play out here. While Kebble perpetrated a fraud on investors that, by some counts, amounted to R26bn, his death meant exactly no-one went to jail.

Such is the frail nature of the SA psyche that a similar outcome with Bosasa won’t fly. Shamila Batohi, the national director of public prosecutions, has been in the job five months, but despite heartwarming speeches, exactly nothing has happened.

In the state capture cases, of which Bosasa would be among the easiest to prosecute, Batohi is now without a central protagonist.

Thankfully, there are others: five Bosasa officials, including Angelo Agrizzi, were arrested in February for allegedly paying bribes.

There’s no disguising the fact that Watson’s death is a setback for accountability for state capture. But Batohi and the Hawks can’t afford for it to be the last word on Bosasa. Otherwise the conspiracy theories will really spin out of control.