Africa's platinum plated tribe

They defended their homeland from the Boers, the British and apartheid. Now the Bafokeng are the continent's richest. Daniel Howden reports

For tourists and weekenders from Johannesburg, the small town of Phokeng is just an unusually smooth section of the road to Sun City, South Africa's answer to Las Vegas. Those who drive slowly might notice that the small houses and roadside businesses look a little tidier and better kept. Anyone who takes the time to stop might be struck by the gleaming sports stadium that is rising above the roof of the old school or the intriguing sign post to the civic centre of the Royal Bafokeng Nation.

But most will simply drive on, unaware that they have just passed through the homeland of Africa's richest tribe.

It is here, surrounded by the dry thornveld, that a young king, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, is trying to break what has become known as Africa's resource curse – the awful paradox which has seen some of the continent's worst poverty and instability concentrated in areas boasting its greatest natural riches.

The Bafokeng's resource is platinum. Their tribal lands straddle some of the world's most valuable deposits of the precious metal. Kgosi's predecessors were sharp enough to acquire legal title to this land in the 19th-century and then tough enough to defend that title against the advances of the Boers, the British empire and the onslaught of apartheid.

What they purchased, in effect, was a remarkable lottery ticket that has continued to pay out.

The budget for this year stands at £92m, with almost all of that coming from platinum. That money has bought some very modern aspirations for a traditional community of 300,000, who in conjunction with the state, are still ruled by a Supreme Council of elders, 82 strong, and chaired by the 41-year-old king.

The urbane Kgosi, said by friends to be a borderline workaholic, was never supposed to be the king. It took the untimely deaths of both his elder brothers for the architect to find himself on the throne in 2000. His first response, say aides, was to take a step back before deciding that he was going to "think big".

Unveiling his masterplan to make sleepy Phokeng into something closer to Malaysia or Singapore, he told a stunned audience that rural development was "bland" and "defeatist".

"I want more than that for the Bafokeng people," he told them. "It is founded on the idea that if you want to achieve big things, you have to dream big, and take big calculated risks to reach beyond your limitations."

Those limits are immediately apparent. Most of his subjects are still poor and unemployment runs at 40 per cent. While infrastructure like roads, schools and sanitation is better than in surrounding areas the Bafokeng have suffered from the perception that they don't need any assistance from the municipality.

There is already a glimpse of the future at the palace. Rather than a gawdy royal residence the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace is a 44,000-seater stadium which will host World Cup matches next year.

The South African football team has already played at the stadium and the Bafokeng have top flight teams in rugby and soccer. They are, of course, named the Platinum Leopards and the Platinum Stars.

Sue Cook, an American anthropologist who came to study the Bafokeng 12 years ago and ended up working for them, says their "genius" throughout their history has been in "welcoming strangers" and learning from them.

When the 19th-century Voortrekkers arrived on his land, Kgosi Mokgatle formed an intermittent friendship with Paul Kruger. It was the taciturn Boer leader who first suggested to King Mokgatle that he would need title to his traditional homelands if he wasn't to be swept away in the tide of migration.

The king listened to him and mustered as many of his warriors as he could, sending them to work in the diamond mines of Kimberley. The money generated was used to buy what they had always thought of as their own land. Steadily a series of "farms" were purchased that make up the bulk of what is today the land of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. When in 1913 the Natives Land Act prevented blacks from owning land the king entrusted it to Lutheran missionaries, who held it for them until they could reclaim it.

Getting the land was only half the battle, according to Mpueleng Pooe, a lawyer and spokesman for the Bafokeng nation. What followed in the 1990s was a "David and Goliath" battle between the tribe and Impala Platinum Holdings. After nearly five years of "very acrimonious" court battles, Pooe explains, the corporation settled and the Bafokeng won 22 per cent of the platinum royalties in 1999. Their next smart move was to convert this into equity, making David the largest shareholder in the Goliath of Impala.

With half a billion US dollars in the bank the next task is to diversify away from mining. The environmental costs of mining platinum which began in the 1920s are apparent everywhere.

Fields of maize and sunflowers are testament to more recent attempts at a mixed economy but there is no mistaking where the real money comes from. It emanates from the small, smoking metallic cities of the platinum mines. The industry has scarred this landscape.

The future looks different. It starts with a so-called "excellence hub", the mock-up of which is reminiscent of those used by Olympic bidding committees. The king's vision for 2035 is of an economy driven by education, professional sport, IT and tourism.

The only traditional aspect will be the people themselves, who continue to own everything communally. The Bafokeng don't do "beads and baskets" authenticity, and their civic centre is an example of red brick brutalist architecture of the style seen in modern British universities. Inside is a head-spinning exhibition featuring black and white images of "Now" and technicolour artist's impressions of the "Future".

Now is a dust blown scene from any half-way poor place in rural Africa. The future is somewhere between a Singaporean shopping mall and a community in America. But the vision is not intended as "an exact blueprint," according to Cook.

The message here is best distilled through the anthropologist's own enthusiastic words: "Why not us? Why not here? Why not now?"

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