EDITORIAL: Confused, we turn to conspiracy



‘Check the boot.” “Where was he going?” “What a weird place to wipe out.”

Gavin Watson, a former anti-apartheid activist and chief executive of African Global Holdings, formerly Bosasa, died in a car crash on Monday. Watson was in negotiations to appear before the Zondo commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture later this year.

What happened in the hours after his fatal crash has brought to the fore South Africans’ appetite for conspiracy theories. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the circumstances of a death and who would benefit from a person’s untimely demise. But the suggestion that Watson was able to avoid any consequences for his alleged hand in corruption because he knew something valuable about people in power will continue to offer fertile ground for fabulating.

We are not immune to believing and peddling our own theories because people by nature are inquisitive. Just as the Americans are finding Jeffrey Epstein’s death in jail has taken on a life of its own, so too shall we with Watson’s death. Epstein died while awaiting trial for sex trafficking and the abuse of underage girls.

There is good reason for the wariness with which we are viewing the circumstances Watson’s death: our faith in state institutions has been steadily eroded by years of ineptitude and gross misconduct, so it is no wonder we have elected ourselves investigators.

It is also noteworthy that reminders of just how inept or susceptible to political manipulation these institutions are will often come from the same individuals — or their supporters — who participated in hollowing them out.

Before we rush to condemn these conspiracy theories about Watson’s death, we have to ask how we got to this point.

From the ghoulish requests to see his body to the amateur crime scene investigators and forensic pathologists popping up on social media, it is apparent that we have experienced perfidy of such magnitude that our only recourse to our powerlessness is to create stories that allow us to make sense of a confusing world and invert the cause of the problem.

This is nothing new. Each generation has its own fake moon landing. Jimmy Hoffa, a trade union leader in the US who was allegedly so deep in mafia pockets he was stitched into the inner seam, disappeared in 1975 and was declared dead in 1982. His body has never been recovered. He continues to make appearances here and there. Allegedly. Rapper and actor Tupac Shakur was fatally shot in 1996 as he was leaving a Las Vagas casino, yet every few years he apparently pops up in Cuba.

There’s another reason Watson’s death has and will continue to inspire conspiracy theories. The allegations against him have been in the public domain for so long that many of us are searching for reasons he and his associates went unpunished for so long. It’s tempting to think that there’s something nefarious behind his death. Perhaps some of the theories doing the rounds will help shed some light on the subject and bring to book some of those at the centre of the ever-unravelling blight that is state capture. Perhaps.

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