HomeArticlesBosasa, Gavin Watson & the human cost of corruption

Bosasa, Gavin Watson & the human cost of corruption

Bosasa boss Gavin Watson has died but not before he and his colleagues bribed their way into government contracts worth millions, including running a deadly clinic against the state’s orders. Take a look back at the Eastern Cape businessman’s complicated legacy in this story from our archives.

Irene Malumbu felt the handcuffs click over both her wrists. It had been a hot highveld day in 2004 and she had been on her way to the local Shoprite in Yeoville in the east of Johannesburg. She wanted to buy juice for her four-year-old nephew Sinoxolo Hlabanzana, whom she had been looking after since he was just a few months old. The toddler had even started to call her “mom”.

But before she could get to the shop, police stopped her. They demanded to see her residence permit — a document that would prove that she, as a Congolese citizen, was in the country legally.

The beige piece of paper was not in her handbag.

Malumbu offered to take the officers to her flat so she could show them her visa.

Sinoxolo’s biological mother, Bongiwe, was there visiting from her home in the Eastern Cape and was expecting them back.

But the policemen refused. Instead, they bundled her into the back of their blue-and-white van. She pleaded: “You can arrest me, but not the child, please, he’s South African.”

Malumbu showed the officers Sinoxolo’s clinic card — a booklet given to children at public health facilities that shows information such as place of birth, vaccinations and parents’ names.

But the policemen ignored her.

They shoved Malumbu and Sinoxolo into the vehicle, slammed the door closed, and locked it.

The air in the bakkie was hot, and became all the more suffocating in the hour it took to drive from Yeoville to Krugersdorp’s Lindela Repatriation Centre for undocumented migrants. Although the facility falls under the department of home affairs, the government had outsourced its management to the now controversial security company Bosasa since at least 2003.

The centre’s menacing reputation preceded it.

Malumbu looked at Sinoxolo and told a little white lie. “Don’t worry, we’re just going on a trip,” she said.

Then she forced a smile and told the terrified boy: “We’ll be home soon.”

Heartbroken: In 2004, Irene Malumbu was staying with her brother Jose (above) in Yeoville when she and Sinoxolo Hlabanzana, José’s son, were arrested and taken to Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp. (David Harrison)

Malumbu only had a scratchy blanket to keep her and Sinoxolo warm at night.

The two had been in Lindela’s women’s ward for two weeks. Malumbu’s brother, José Malumbu, had come to the Krugersdorp facility every day to get his legally documented sister and his South African son out of the deportation centre — but to no avail.

Sinoxolo had developed a fever and diarrhoea. He was getting sicker and sicker as the days dragged on.

“Many people are sick there. They are coughing all the time and throwing up,” Irene Malumbu told Bhekisisa over a crackly telephone line this week. She moved back to Kinshasa in 2018 to be with her mother. “You wake up with little pimples all over your skin.”

Malumbu took Sinoxolo to Lindela’s in-house clinic. The health facility was completely empty, she says. There was no medical equipment or medicine and the nurse refused to help them.

“They did nothing. Not even a Panado for the fever,” Malumbu remembers. “The child was hysterical and begging for food. But they wouldn’t feed him.”

Instead, another police van was called to take Sinoxolo to Leratong Hospital in Mogale City. Once they got to the hospital, Lindela officers would not let Malumbu stay with her nephew.

They told her: “That’s not how it works in South Africa.”

“Don’t leave me, mommy,” Malumbu remembers Sinoxolo screaming as the officers led her back to the police van.

The phone line goes quiet for a few seconds.

Then Malumbu explains: “I had to leave him there.”

Bittersweet memory: An old picture of Sinoxolo Hlabanzana and his father, José Malumbu. 

In 2005, 21 Lindela detainees died in the space of just eight months, the centre’s head of medical services, Mamisa Chabula, told Parliament in that year. The deaths sparked a ministerial committee of inquiry that concluded Bosasa should not be in charge of providing healthcare at the centre.

But three months later, the department of home affairs renewed Bosasa’s contract to run Lindela to the tune of about R950-million — including the facility’s deadly clinic.

The 2005 home affairs contract — which Bhekisisa has seen — warns: “The department has decided not to award the tender portion that deals with the provision of health and medical facilities to your company.”

But in the next breath, the document says Bosasa will continue to provide medical care until the services are handed over to a more suitable company.

Over the next 10 years, conditions at Lindela would prompt one court case, a second South African Human Rights Commission investigation and  several attempts by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to gain access to the facility to provide medical care.

In 2015, the department of home affairs renewed Bosasa’s contract to run Lindela until 2020, and this includes running a “24-hour sick bay” with medical staff and a dispensary. Bhekisisa has not seen this contract.

The former head of detention monitoring at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), Kayan Leung, says the organisation requested Bosasa’s 2015 contract through the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) almost two years ago.

“We were given the runaround,” she argues. Leung says LHR was forced to resubmit their request because the first simply disappeared. It was clear they were hiding something,” she explains.

Former Bosasa chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi has been testifying before the Zondo Commission into state capture since January. Armed with his little black book, Agrizzi has detailed years of bribery to secure government contracts worth billions.

This week, he may have revealed why no one, including LHR, has been able to find Bosasa’s 2015 contract.

Agrizzi says Bosasa used business consultant Aneel Radhakrishna to bypass treasury’s procurement processes to secure the R550-million deal to run Lindela until 2020. Radhakrishna did not respond to Bhekisisa’s questions.

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The deal included the facility’s clinic that Bosasa should never have managed in the first place, according to the 2005 government investigation.

At the commission’s hearings in Parktown, Agrizzi told Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo that Bosasa received R93.6-million a year from Lindela. After Agrizzi’s testimony, Bosasa employee Frans Vorster told the commission that, in 2006, the company spent the annual budget for Lindela in just six months, forcing former finance minister Trevor Manuel to pay them an additional R120-million.

And over the festive season, Bosasa would buy extra mattresses to accommodate 2 000 more detainees. Bosasa vehicles would then go out and help officials to round up undocumented migrants to increase the facility’s occupancy — because home affairs paid them a fee per detainee.

“The cost of this Bosasa looting has been paid by immigrants detained in inhumane and undignified conditions at Lindela,” Democratic Alliance MP Jaques Julius said in a recent statement.

In 2016, former Bosasa chief executive officer Gavin Watson billed the costs of building two houses for his children to the state, claiming the funds were to renovate Lindela facilities, according to an affidavit by former Bosasa auditor Peet Venter.

Agrizzi says: “We were scoring.”

“Mommy don’t leave me.” Irene Malumbu was forced to leave her nephew Sinoxolo at Leratong Hospital, where he kept for the night.

Back at Lindela, Irene Malumbu was pacing up and down the women’s ward. Her nephew Sinoxolo, sick with fever and diarrhoea, had been taken to Leratong Hospital and kept overnight the day before. Lindela officials had promised to take her back to the hospital to see him in the morning, but no one turned up.

The sun had begun to cast long shadows into the ward when she was called to the telephone. It was one of her brother’s friends. He had gone with José to the hospital.

Malumbu panicked. She knew something was wrong: “Where’s José?” she asked.

“Why isn’t he speaking to me?”

The friend didn’t answer.

Instead, in a low voice, he said: “Sinoxolo died last night.”

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The Lindela Repatriation Centre is haunted by human rights violations spanning more than two decades. Alleged bloody beatings at the hands of Bosasa staff, suspicious deaths and “dangerous” medical care are among the most recent abuses recorded at the centre, according to MSF.

A 2016 report by MSF revealed allegations that the facility west of Johannesburg has illegally detained dozens of children just like Sinoxolo.

South African laws stipulate that the department of social welfare must house undocumented children in places of safety. In rare instances, minors like these can also be detained, but it is illegal to house them alongside adults, which can put children at risk of abuse, Corey Johnson, advocacy officer at the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town explains. The development organisation works on issues of migrant healthcare.

But since 2016, an MSF paediatrician identified about 50 minors at the repatriation centre. A Bosasa nurse even admitted that she thought the centre saw about 20 children a month at the time the medical organisation conducted an oversight visit to Lindela in 2016 alongside LHR and the South African Human Rights Commission.

The children MSF found at Lindela were transferred to places of safety with the help of the department of social development, MSF medical co-ordinator Amir Shroufi told Bhekisisa in December 2017. Back then, home affairs spokesperson Thabo Mokgola denied the allegations. Mokgola failed to respond to Bhekisisa’s detailed questions this week. Bosasa spokesperson Papa Leshabane referred all queries to home affairs.

MSF also found that two outbreaks of diarrhoea had swept through Lindela in the six months before it inspected the wards. Clinic staff also reported one case of meningococcal meningitis, a potentially deadly and contagious infection that can cause swelling around the brain. Only a small number of detainees who slept near the patient were given preventative treatment.

The sole doctors at Lindela’s clinic seemingly admitted to ignoring national guidelines and refused to send one man with meningitis to Leratong Hospital, which is supposed to provide care for any seriously-ill detainees.

The man died the same day.

“This case exposes systemic failing in case management at the clinic,” MSF warns in its report. “There is a strong case for clinical negligence, which may have contributed to an avoidable death.”

Today, people detained at Lindela Repatriation Centre continue to face harrowing health conditions: lice-infested blankets, physical abuse and a lack of screening or treatment for HIV or TB, if MSF’s recent complaint to the Office of Health Standards Compliance (OHSC) is any indication.

Lindela still doesn’t have the kind of screening for new arrivals that would help officers to identify whether they are illegally detaining children, or whether people need care for chronic illnesses, the MSF complaint shows.

MSF previously had sporadic access to Lindela to evaluate conditions and healthcare and offered several times over the past eight years to provide healthcare and support to the facility, largely through the South African Human Rights Commission. The commission was never able to negotiate with the department of home affairs to allow MSF access to Lindela

The medical organisation hasn’t been allowed back into Lindela since 2017.

But OHSC spokesperson Ricardo Mahlakanya confirmed that the office of the health ombud is actively investigating conditions at Lindela.

Two weeks after Sinoxolo died, Irene Malumbu was released from Lindela. But she is still haunted by her experience there.

“You know when you lose someone it feels like you are not touching the ground. I still look at pictures of him, and I cannot stop crying.”

“I just want to know where my child is.” Sinoxolo died almost two decades ago, but his family have never seen his grave. It is likely he was buried as a pauper at Kagiso Cemetery. (Paul Botes)

Teddy bear-shaped gravestones decorate the children’s section at Kagiso Cemetery in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg. There are blue ones, pink ones and those shaped like Winnie the Pooh. Some parents have fastened stuffed toys to wooden crosses to remember their children.

Sanele, Sibusiso, Thandolwethu — the children’s gravestones stretch out in neat rows amid overgrown green grass. “Our little angel. Held for a moment, loved for a lifetime,” reads one of the epitaphs.

But for others, those children whose bodies were never claimed and who were given pauper’s burials, their names become in death six-digit identification numbers stamped on concrete bricks.

Sinoxolo could be among them. Although his father, José, was at the hospital the morning after his son died, he says he was never allowed to see his son in the mortuary or claim the body. He says hospital staff and Lindela officers refused to tell him why his son died.

José Malumbu explains: “Since that day at the hospital, I have not been able to see where my son is buried.”

Leratong Hospital spokesperson Fikile Oyekanmi says the hospital is looking for Sinoxolo’s death certificate or any records that could help in locating his grave following Bhekisisa’s inquiries.

Almost one in 10 children registered with home affairs in 2017 received documentation after they turned one. In almost half of these cases, children were only documented after the age of 15, according to a 2017 Statistics South Africa report.

Because Sinoxolo was never registered with home affairs — and he had no ID when he was admitted to hospital — finding this document has proven near impossible.

At least five families contact Themba Soko (above) each year in search of their loved ones. He says his funeral parlour likely buried Sinoxolo at Kagiso Cemetery. (Paul Botes)

But Bhekisisa has confirmed that Soko Funeral Parlour in Kagiso would have been the undertaker that buried Sinoxolo. The owner, Themba Soko, says he would have been buried at Kagiso cemetery.

But the cemetery could not find Sinoxolo’s name in its records. They believe he had only been identified with a body number.

Soko explains that this is not the first family to come to him looking for a loved one. “It happens at least five times each year.” Still, Sinoxolo’s story shocks him. “That little boy should never have been at Lindela. He should never have died.”

Sinoxolo’s family may never be able to locate his grave among the plots. In 2006, the health department assumed responsibility for all state mortuaries that had been previously run by the South African Police Service.

Staff at the Roodepoort state mortuary say most records before 2006 were destroyed during the handover, save for a few handwritten ledgers.

José is devastated: “I just want to know where my son is,” he explains. “The one day he was sick and the next day dead.”

This story was originally published on 1 February 2019.

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.