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South Africa tribe has rich aspirations

The Royal Bafokeng Nation managed to hold on to its land and win royalties from the platinum mined there. The tribe is pouring revenue into services, schools and a first-world future.

April 06, 2009|Robyn Dixon

PHOKENG, SOUTH AFRICA — Sitting on a cheap vinyl chair in a cramped office, his desk topped with a small green-and-blue flag and a plastic ice cream container holding pencils, Magosi Tumagole could be a small-town accountant, not the royal elder of Africa's richest tribe.

The modest office and his car -- a small white van that a plumber might use -- run against the grain in a region where some tribal royals make headlines for their free-spending ways, their bulletproof limousines and their wives' extravagant shopping bills.

The Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelethini, has six palaces, an armor-plated Mercedes-Benz and a taxpayer-funded household budget of $4.5 million.

But compared with the Royal Bafokeng Nation, he's a pauper. The Bafokeng's land covers a portion of the world's biggest platinum deposits.

Africa has spawned countless examples of the "resource curse" in which rulers and governments loot the riches and none of the wealth trickles down to the poor. Can the Bafokeng, with its plans to be South Africa's "Excellence Hub," break the mold?

With dusty streets and shabby houses, Phokeng may not look like a little Norway, investing platinum income the way the Scandinavian kingdom invests oil revenue to cover pensions and state spending. The Bafokeng are still poor.

But the $200 million from platinum revenue put into roads, water, schools, clinics and electricity over several decades leaves the community better serviced than other rural towns -- and a magnet for outsiders who want those services and the mining jobs.

One reason for the enduring poverty, Bafokeng leaders say, is the struggle with local governments and oil companies over platinum royalties. The punishment for demanding their rights, they say, was official neglect, forcing the community to provide the basic infrastructure for the tribal lands that should be the responsibility of the North West Province government and the nearby Rustenburg municipality.

Platinum was discovered in the area in the early 1920s. The Bafokeng owe their wealth to a farsighted king in the 19th century, Kgosi Mokgatle, and to the persistence of his successors who fought a long legal battle to win -- in 1999 -- the right to a fair share of royalties.

Impala Platinum Holdings, or Implats, finally settled out of court, and the Bafokeng royalties increased to 22% from about 15%. In 2006 they converted the royalties to equity, making the Bafokeng the largest shareholder in Implats.

Sue Cook, an American anthropologist who is the research and planning executive in the office of the king, says Kgosi Mokgatle realized in the 1860s that without title, the Bafokeng would lose their land when white settlers arrived. He sent the young men of the tribe to work in mines in the Kimberley diamond region and pay part of their wages into a community fund to buy land.

But the 1913 Natives Land Act prevented blacks from owning land, so German missionaries helped the Bafokeng set up a trust to hold the land on behalf of the community.

Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, 41, an architect and town planner, became king in 2000 after the deaths of two older brothers. He chairs the Supreme Council of 82 traditional leaders, which rules the 300,000-strong community and decides how to spend the money.

"We are building clinics. We are building schools. We are building roads," said Tumagole, the king's uncle. "Our priority is education, health infrastructure, housing." The community is also planning increased spending on job creation, HIV programs and agriculture.

With nearly $500 million in the bank, and $46 million in dividends from platinum mining companies last year, the tribe's annual budget has grown to about $75 million, mainly on infrastructure and education. It gets clean independent audits -- unlike 95% of the provincial governments examined annually by South Africa's auditor general.

Because of the sense of being neglected by various governments, the Bafokeng Supreme Council plans to become totally self-sufficient by 2020. A 30-year master plan displays photographs of "Now" and idealistic images of 2035, with wide streets, elegant houses and a European-style pedestrian street scape.

"It's very ambitious," said the head of the Bafokeng treasury, Thabo Mokgatlha, 34. "We know we will not be able to fund it out of our reserves. It you want to speed things up, you will have to go and borrow."

At the heart of the dream is the Royal Bafokeng Administration, housed in a looming red-brick edifice that dominates Phokeng, along with the newly renovated Royal Bafokeng Sports Stadium.

The administration's lobby is decked with colorful fake flowers, models of future developments and a gallery of graphs, maps and targets exuding the communal optimism of a Soviet five-year plan.

The vision looks more like a Scandinavian nation than rural South Africa. The dream remains a long way off. The unemployment rate is 40%, and the average family survives on $20 a week.

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