The minister, the gifts, the Watsons and the wind farm
The Watson family, whose links to minister Nomvula Mokonyane were exposed during explosive testimony at the Zondo commission on state capture, want to build a controversial wind farm in the Eastern Cape. And the minister on whose decision their plans depend is … Mokonyane.
Mokonyane has a history of a direct relationship with the eldest of the four brothers, Gavin Watson, and also, at the very least, a tangential relationship with the "wind farm branch" of the family: two of the younger brothers, Ronald (Ronnie) and Valence, and Valence's son Jared.
The Inyanda-Roodeplaat Wind Energy Facility is a wind farm project that they want to build on the top of a mountain in an area of critical biodiversity and environmental sensitivity about some 50km northwest of Port Elizabeth.
The 187.2MW project is being developed by Inyanda Energy Projects (Pty) Ltd, a company established in July 2012. Three of its four active directors are Ronnie, Valence and Jared Watson. (The fourth director is Tandy Ronell Snead.) The properties where Inyanda wants to construct the wind farm are owned by Laidback Investments (Pty) Ltd and O’Feh Investments (Pty) Ltd, both companies represented by director Ronnie Watson.
The plan is for 47 turbines, each 85m high and with 130m diameter blades, on top of the Groot Winterhoek mountain ridge at an altitude of about 1,000m. The farm would be situated on 21 parcels of land totalling about 12,200ha, between three portions of Groendal Nature Reserve.
Groendal is a provincial nature reserve, and the surrounding Groendal Wilderness Area is protected under the National Forestry Act.
The project proposal drew strong objections from, among others, the Eastern Cape Parks & Tourism Agency, the Eastern Cape's department of economic development, environment & tourism, BirdLife South Africa, Wilderness Foundation Africa, and the Elands River Conservancy.
But the wind farm received the environmental go-ahead from the national department of environmental affairs (DEA) in April last year.
This decision is now under appeal.
Appeals against environmental approval made by the department are adjudicated by the minister of environmental affairs. An appeals site visit had been on the cards for mid-September last year but was postponed, and then minister Edna Molewa, who would have adjudicated the appeals, died suddenly on September 22. The site visit was eventually held in the first week of November, led by the department’s acting director of appeals.
Nomvula Mokonyane took up the environmental cabinet post on November 22. A former minister of water and sanitation in then-president Zuma’s administration and – very briefly – minister of communication under President Cyril Ramaphosa in January 2018, Mokonyane served as premier of Gauteng between 2009 and 2014.
She has some previous experience of environmental issues, having also served as Gauteng MEC for agriculture, conservation and environment between 1996 and 1999.
Mokonyane should be preparing to consider the appeals but she may be facing a significant conflict of interest that should disqualify her from making any appeal decision.
The Bosasa story
The origins of Bosasa Supply Chain Management lie in a company initially called Emafini, that became Meritum Hostels in 1985. In 1996, it was awarded the contract to run the newly established Lindela repatriation centre in Krugersdorp.
Around the same time, Meritum Hostels offered a black economic empowerment share in the company to a group of 12 senior ANC Women’s League members, who took up the offer through the creation of the Dyambu Trust, of which Mokonyane was one of two trustees.
The company was renamed Dyambu Operations, with Gavin Watson as its chief executive. The trust's operating arm was called Dyambu Holdings, which held a 10% share in Dyambu Operations.
In August 2000, Watson bought out Dyambu Holdings’ share – represented by Hilda Ndude – for R5.5m, and the company was renamed Bosasa Operations. By the time it acquired its first major prisons contract for catering in 2004, the ANC Women's League no longer had any direct financial interest in it; it was fully owned by a Watson family trust (26%), Bosasa directors Carol Mkele (33,3%) and Joe Gumede (18,5%), and the Bosasa Employees Trust (22,2%).
Bosasa, which later became Bosasa Supply Chain Management and then changed its name again in 2017 to African Global Operations (now in liquidation), came under the spotlight at the Zondo commission in January, where testimony about systemic corruption of politicians and state officials by Bosasa included allegations of impropriety against Mokonyane.
In particular, former chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi testified that Bosasa had given Mokonyane gifts and favours over several years – including R50,000 a month, huge quantities of Christmas drinks and groceries, and catering for ANC rallies she was involved in. He claimed the gifts were intended to facilitate her help in protecting the company from law enforcement agencies.
Another Bosasa employee, Richard le Roux, said in his statement to the Zondo commission that he had been tasked by Gavin Watson to do maintenance work and installing a Bosasa-funded security system at Mokonyane’s house. "I was specifically instructed by Watson and [others] … not to disclose the installations or the work done," he said.
Witnesses whom Le Roux suggested could be called to support his testimony included "Mrs Sandy, the personal assistant to the minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, who will attest that I would be called out at all times of the day'.
Mokonyane has not yet had an opportunity to formally respond to any of the allegations made against her at the commission, and she complained through her lawyers that her constitutional rights had been breached in this regard.
Gavin Watson is not a director of any of the companies involved in the Inyanda-Roodeplaat project, and Ronnie, Valence and Jared Watson are not directors of Bosasa. However, the last three all featured in testimony about Bosasa both by Agrizzi and his one-time colleague, former chief financial officer Andries van Tonder.
Van Tonder referred to the 2007 investigation by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) into four tenders awarded to Bosasa by the department of correctional services, worth more than R1.5bn.
"When the SIU investigation commenced, a meeting was held with Ronnie Watson, Valence Watson, Gavin Watson, Angelo Agrizzi, where we were told that a 'pact' was formed and no one must break the 'pact' or testify against one another. We were told that the Watsons had it all under control and had access to both the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority," his statement reads.
Van Tonder also testified that after Agrizzi released a media statement in August last year about his intention to blow the whistle on Bosasa and Gavin Watson, he had received a phone call from Valence Watson asking him to help change Agrizzi's mind.
"The calls from Valence Watson continued over time …
"On the request from Watsons, we held meetings at Angelo Agrizzi's house which were attended by Angelo Agrizzi, myself, Brian Biebuyck, Ronnie Watson, Valence Watson, Jared Watson … Jared Watson begged me on numerous occasions to meet him."
Biebuyck was the Watson family lawyer.
Agrizzi also testified that on August 23 last year, Ronnie Watson, Valence Watson, Jared Watson and Biebuyck had arrived at his home.
"And basically they said that they had confronted Gavin Watson who … denied absolutely everything. But they said that they were mandated by Gavin Watson to make an offer to me to market their property called Royalston Estate. It is a wildlife residential resort in Port Elizabeth that they wanted me … to get involved with. Quite simply they said… I must start a business and they would fund it. I refused it point blank.”
The commission heard that a draft legal agreement to secure Agrizzi’s silence was drawn up that was to be kept “strictly confidential”. It included provision for an “oversight committee” whose members were Valence Watson, Ronnie Watson and Biebuyck.
Agrizzi told the commission about expensive gifts presented by Bosasa to a business partner of Valence Watson, Siviwe Mapisa, the one-time head of security at the SA Post Office where Bosasa had also secured a tender, and who is also the brother of former Correctional Services minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
Agrizzi told the commission that Mapisa would go hunting on Ronnie Watson’s game farm in the Eastern Cape “and we (Bosasa) would transport the meat”.
None of the Watsons has yet responded publicly to any of this evidence.
No conflict of interest, says minister’s office
Gavin Watson is not a director of the wind farm project, but there is an argument to be made that Mokonyane has been placed in a difficult and compromised position by the damning (though as yet unanswered) testimony at the Zondo commission, concerning both her alleged personal benefit from Bosasa and the Watsons’ close family ties that drew all four brothers into the Bosasa drama. (The youngest of the four, Daniel “Cheeky” Watson, was also named during Agrizzi’s testimony.) This argument holds that the minister should not adjudicate the Inyanda-Roodeplaat appeals, at least until – and if – she’s able to clear her name.
Mokonyane has indicated through her spokesperson Mlimandlela Ndamase that she will not withdraw from the adjudication process.
“The minister exercises her powers in line with law and processes of the department. This power is not exercised in isolation from the above,” Ndamase said in response to questions by GroundUp.
“There is no conflict of interest that arises in the above matter as the department must apply its regulations and legal prescripts to all appeals without prejudice based on directors and or owners of companies involved in the appeal processes. The minister acts and exercises her powers within the parameters of such processes.”
Ndamase did not say when Mokonyane planned to make her decision.
Constitutional expert professor Pierre de Vos of UCT believes that the minister is in an untenable position.
Asked by GroundUp to comment, De Vos said the Zondo commission testimony had created a “reasonable apprehension of bias” on the part of Mokonyane.
“It’s about perception. There would be a problem with her making the decision and it could be challenged. Although it depends on the facts, there is a strong argument to be made against her and it would be better for her to recuse herself to avoid the possibility of a legal challenge,” he said.
GroundUp invited the three Watsons who are directors of Inyanda Energy Projects to comment, through their lawyers Rushmere & Noach. On Tuesday Rushmere & Noach director Steve Gough responded: “It would be presumptuous of my clients to opine on what the minister should or shouldn’t do with regard to the appeal. They also have no on the record comments regarding what may or may not have been said about them by Agrizzi at the Zondo commission.”
- This article was first published in GroundUp.