Phokeng - While South African mining companies try to halt
the spread of deadly labour strife, a kingdom that partly governs a small
stretch of the country's platinum belt has managed to transform mineral wealth
into social stability.
The Royal Bafokeng Nation has funnelled money it earns from
its Royal Bafokeng Platinum (RBPLat) company into a mini sovereign wealth fund
that provides cash for schools, clinics and infrastructure.
It and its capital, Phokeng, stand out as a beacon of
success amid the poverty of the platinum belt, where sprawling tin-hut shanty
towns sit alongside billion-dollar mines digging out the precious metal used in
vehicle catalytic converters.
The community has not been entirely immune from the labour
unrest that has rocked northwestern South Africa, home to nearly 80% of the
world's known platinum reserves.
It has also been criticised for using the facade of
traditional leadership to help mining firms expand in the region and wasteful
spending on pet projects of the royal family.
But supporters say its basic success in providing public
services could serve as a model for other parts of the country, where the ANC
has failed to meet expectations of a better life since apartheid ended in 1994.
A measure of social stability has cushioned the kingdom from
the wildcat strikes that have paralysed other platinum firms, hit the rand
currency and raised questions about the ability of the ANC to run a
sophisticated emerging economy.
More than 50 people have been killed in the platinum belt
since August, including 34 strikers shot dead by police at Lonmin's Marikana
mine in the deadliest security incident since the end of white minority rule.
Little of the violence has reached the Bafokeng Nation, a
kingdom of 150 000 people covering 1,400 square km - a little larger than New
"The ruling ANC has a slogan of 'creating a better life
for all'," RBPlat chief executive Steve Phiri told Reuters. "We are
trying to do the same, but we are also creating sustainability."
Salaries appear to go further
Although the nation is often called "the country's
richest tribe", it is still far from a paradise.
Its unemployment rate is well above the national average and
crime is high, as are HIV infection rates. RBPLat pays its workers about the
same as other platinum firms.
But the wages appear to go much further because of the
kingdom's social spending, residents say.
For pensioners such as Baanjo Mfulmwane, the kingdom sends
out vans to shuttle them for medical treatment: "There is someone to pick
me up even though I don't have money," she said.
At Lemao Boitshoko's school in Phokeng, classmates play
soccer under solar-powered floodlights on a synthetic pitch imported from Italy
- facilities that would be difficult to find elsewhere in the platinum belt.
"I want to be a doctor. I can do that anywhere, but
it's a lot easier to do because I live here," Boitshoko said.
Public schools have, at the minimum, qualified teachers,
books, desks and electricity. Boitshoko attends a regular school, but there is
also a "magnet school" for the best and brightest with extra money to
The ratio of students passing a high school graduation exam
in the Bafokeng kingdom is about 20 percentage points above the national
Most miners in the Bafokeng Nation live with their families
in modest homes connected to electricity lines and clean water, and along paved
roads where garbage is regularly collected.
The conditions are far better than the shanties around many
South African platinum mines, where miners pay to live alone in shacks without
water, electricity and plumbing, sending money to extended families far away.
Voice for the community
Surveys of residents show 80% say they feel the area is safe
and 93% say schools are adequate or better than adequate. Nevertheless,
Bafokeng is not without its critics.
South Africa's government recognises traditional societies
like the Bafokeng but usually limits powers to ceremonial duties. Some complain
about living under an unelected king.
"We want the community to have a voice and decide if
they want to be subject to traditional leadership and not have it imposed on
them," said Thusi Rapoo, leader of the Bafokeng Land Buyers' Association.
His group is trying to stop the kingdom from declaring large
farms part of its territory, describing it as an overblown clan used as a front
for mining bosses, who foisted the kingdom's leadership on the population to
gain control over minerals.
Gavin Capps, research chair in Land Reform and Democracy in
South Africa at the University of Cape Town's Centre for African Studies said:
"Things have not gotten better at all.
"The people on the ground are absolutely adamant that
they have not seen the benefits. They are extremely bitter about it and feel it
is the royal family that has benefited."
Residents have complained about pork-barrel projects,
pollution from mines and damage to houses caused by underground blasting.
Sue Cook, a top researcher for the kingdom said the Bafokeng
leadership has made mistakes in its projects, such as in environmental
protection, and is trying to remedy its miscues.
"The environmental effects of mining are one of the
most serious challenges facing the Bafokeng communities. Instead of
collaborating on this with the mines and the local municipality, we have tried
to address it on our own. This is going to change," she said.
The running theme in the kingdom is to turn out fewer miners
and use the platinum wealth to set its people on paths to higher paying jobs.
Royal Bafokeng Platinum is "More than Mining" read
signs that identify a hydroponics vegetable farm for the blind and AIDS
clinics, all built with profits from the precious metal.
The kingdom set up Royal Bafokeng Holdings in 2006 to manage
and develop its commercial assets, merging two other funds. It is a major
shareholder in Impala Platinum and Zurich Insurance Company South Africa, and
holds shares in major telecoms firm Vodacom and local manufacturers.
The holding company's portfolio was valued at R25.1bn,
according to its 2011 annual report. In 2010, it provided an R800m dividend to
the Royal Bafokeng Nation, equal to about $620 per person.
Three quarters of the dividend went to schools, sewage
systems, roads, electric lines, sports, police, housing and social welfare,
according to the kingdom's accounts published on the Internet, providing
additional benefits over and above what the local and national governments
The remainder, about R200m, was spent on administration,
including an undisclosed salary for the king.
At the current rate of platinum extraction, the mineral
reserves in the Bafokeng land will last another 35 to 40 years, according the
King Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, born in 1968, trained as an
architect and has a penchant for well-tailored suits. He is said to understand
that the platinum wealth provides only a short timeframe to transform the
"Our governance and internal controls must be
benchmarked against the very best," he wrote in the kingdom's master plan.
"Our plans must be realistic and affordable."