On Thursday 5 November, three hours after former SAA board chairperson Dudu Myeni had wilfully blurted out the identity of Mr X at the Zondo Commission, I found myself holding hands with her nemesis, Angelo Agrizzi in ICU, at a private hospital in northern Johannesburg.
Despite having worked intimately as a publisher and editor with Agrizzi since July on his just-released corruption memoir Inside the Belly of the Beast, I had never actually met him in the flesh. With strict Covid-19 regulations restricting visiting times to just one hour and one visitor a day, I had to pull a few Agrizzi moves to secure 30 minutes with my author.
I tentatively approached the patient, surrounded by banks of beeping life support contraptions. A dialysis machine discreetly washed blood in the background. It felt phantasmagorical.
“You look like Hannibal Lecter,” I teased as I stood beside the bed. Covered in a full-face ventilation mask, hooked up to an oxygen machine with graphics of lungs showing each intake of breath, with all that plastic covering his face, it was hard to see whether he was smiling back.
ICU has a way of disarming one by touching the soul. It felt only right that I should take his hand.
Six months earlier I had been repelled by the idea of Agrizzi and all he represented. I’d fobbed him off a number of times as a self-confessed corrupt racist, when he had approached me via email to pitch his memoir. But life, and its bizarre twists and turns, has a way of making mincemeat out of what we think we know and who we think we are.
In July I grudgingly read his manuscript, Inside the Belly of the Beast. I was blown away. Despite my preconceptions and distaste for what he represented I quickly realised that as the former COO of Bosasa, Agrizzi had produced an astonishing memoir, tracking almost two decades of bribery, politicking and corruption. The public interest argument won me over. At a time in our country when corruption has become the most urgent scourge to address, Agrizzi’s confessional memoir is a vital piece of evidence in further exposing the corporate and political crimes that redirected billions meant for the citizens of this country. The public is owed this information since much of it directly relates to the criminal pillaging of state coffers.
As I got to know the subject, my own moral judgments and perceptions changed – you don’t have to be a paragon of virtue to be the messenger.
Back in ICU, Agrizzi points to the dialysis machine chugging blood. “They’re making cranberry milkshakes out of me.”
The past three weeks have been a macabre dance between life and death for South Africa’s biggest whistle-blower.
Before Agrizzi was denied bail by Magistrate Phillip Vorster on 14 October (on the grounds of being deemed a flight risk) and incarcerated at Johannesburg Central, aka Sun City, his kidneys had been working just fine. In fact, despite the numerous comorbidities and respiratory issues that necessitate him having to carry around his own oxygen tank, the controversial whistle-blower had been relatively healthy before the Department of Correctional Service got hold of him. Now kidney failure and the subsequent threat of total organ shutdown has necessitated daily dialysis.
He seems to be reading my thoughts.
“They tried to kill me. Twice.”
I lean in closer.
I urge him to recollect what happened when he heard his bail had been denied.
“I was shocked when the judge refused me bail. It came as a big surprise as Mannie (Witz, who is one of his attorneys) had assured me the day before that it would all be sorted.”
In hindsight, Agrizzi should probably have smelt something when he was transported in a Casspir from the Brackendown police station to the Palm Ridge Magistrates’ Court to appear for the bail hearing. “About nine police cars accompanied me. It was totally over the top.”
After the shock of his bail refusal, Agrizzi was led out of the courtroom, oxygen tank in hand, and forced to walk up four flights of stairs. “That nearly killed me. I was really struggling to breathe.”
From court, he was back in the Casspir, again accompanied by a ridiculously large police escort, and placed in a cell inside Sun City. “I had to hand in all my belongings, including my phone. I wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. Luckily Andries van Tonder (a former colleague at Bosasa) was allowed to give me some clothes.”
In the cell, Agrizzi was given a prison-issue oxygen tank. Lights went out at 9pm. Agrizzi tried to sleep. “At about 10pm I heard a clinking noise and someone entered the cell. It was too dark to see what was happening.” Then Agrizzi lost consciousness.
“I suspect something was done to me in that cell. I have no recollection of anything until I woke up in the Chris Hani Baragwanath. I soon realised I had soiled my bed and that there were heavy chains shackling my legs.”
With no nurses in attendance, he implored the prison guards who were now standing guard in his hospital room to help him to the bath so that he could clean himself. They told him to make his own way. Still no sign of a nurse.
“There was no dignity. I crawled like a dog down the corridor with these chains on my legs and finally found an old yellow-stained bath. There was no plug and only cold water.”
It makes little sense to many South Africans why an important whistleblower like Agrizzi, who is a vital witness to the corrupt relationship between Bosasa and certain political players, has been shackled and criminalised, while a large number of “Dudu Myenis” are allowed to walk free and are not brought before our judicial structures and prosecuted.
He fashioned a stopper from a plastic coke bottle he found “which became my best friend” and managed to clean himself, still chained. He dried himself with a T-shirt. “I borrowed a pair of shorts from the hospital.”
Agrizzi has scant recollection of what happened to him at the state hospital where he lay shackled for five days until, on Monday 19 October, he was rushed in an ambulance to a private clinic in northern Johannesburg.
“All I know is that my condition worsened. I do remember speaking to an intern doctor – Nazir I think – doing rounds, who must have alerted someone to have me transferred out of the hellhole. I have been told that once I arrived at the private clinic, six or seven nurses worked on me to revive me as I was basically dead. When I finally regained consciousness, one nurse showed me her hands which were black and blue from trying to revive me.”
Two days later, on Wednesday 21 October, Agrizzi’s lawyer Mannie Witz informed the media that his client had suffered a heart attack and gave some insights into what was happening behind closed doors in ICU.
“There are about nine armed guards, including three stationed physically in his intensive care room, for whatever reason, we’re not certain why. He’s also restrained to the bed by his legs. The man is sedated, he’s on a ventilator which is down his throat, he’s on dialysis, he’s on drips – I’m not really sure where they think he’s going to go.”
With all Agrizzi’s comorbidities, especially his chronic respiratory condition, there appears to have been no attention paid to the possibility of a constant flux of prison guards infecting Agrizzi with the Covid-19 virus, a sure death sentence in his condition.
For the next few days Agrizzi hovered, unconscious, between life and death. He was intubated, he was fed through a tube and plugged into a bank of life support machines.
On 30 October, 16 days after he was incarcerated, Judge Ratha Motgoatleng overturned the Palm Ridge Court’s decision and granted Agrizzi bail, set at about R15-million.
Agrizzi has a TV in his room in ICU. Earlier in the day he had watched Dudu Myeni’s Zondo testimony, where she repeatedly refused to answer questions on the grounds of not wanting to “incriminate” herself.
In Inside the Belly of the Beast, Agrizzi writes: “As I would later testify to the Zondo Commission, Dudu Myeni received R300,000 a month for the ‘Jacob Zuma Foundation’, but she refused to have the money transferred by EFT – it had to be cash. Either Joe Gumede, Trevor Mathenjwa or Gavin Watson himself handed it over. There was never a formal letter requesting this donation or thanking Bosasa for it.”
It makes little sense to many South Africans why an important whistle-blower like Agrizzi, who is a vital witness to the corrupt relationship between Bosasa and certain political players, has been shackled and criminalised, while a large number of “Dudu Myenis” are allowed to walk free and are not brought before our judicial structures and prosecuted.
Agrizzi has managed to sit up in bed for the first time in weeks. “I have made a vow to myself to get better. I am not dead. I have every intention of walking out of this hospital and going back to Zondo to cross-examine the people I have named.” DM
The Puma, Cougar and Mountain Lion are all the same animal.
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