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A brief history of the Royal Bafokeng Nation’s mining story

A succession of carpetbaggers have tried to deprive the Bafokeng of their ancestral endowment. The late Steve Kearney, former CEO of Impala Platinum, is remembered as a hero among the Bafokeng for helping to avert disaster.
The nation has managed to diversify its portfolio from relying solely on mining. Royal Bafokeng Platinum (pictured) is one of three legacy assets within the holding company. Image: Supplied

It was the Bafokeng’s great fortune – or misfortune, depending on who you talk to – to occupy land holding some of the richest deposits of platinum in the world.

The platinum lay undisturbed for several decades until a commercial use was found for it, first in industrial applications and later in autocatalysts. It sparked a new round in a centuries-long campaign to dispossess the Bafokeng of their ancestral rights.

Few South Africans today are aware of the struggles the Bafokeng nation, now numbering some 350 000 people, endured throughout South Africa’s storied political history.

As detailed exhaustively in the book ‘Platinum Man’ by Ciaran Ryan and a University of North West academic study entitled ‘People of the Dew’ by Andrew Manson and Bernard Mbenga, the Bafokeng have fought for more than 100 years to retain title to the land their ancestors occupied for hundreds of years. They have had to defend their land and ancestral rights against a succession of predators, from Mzilikazi (then fleeing Zulu King Shaka’s carnage) to the British colonists and the Boers.

Title deeds were entirely foreign to the Bafokeng concept of communal property rights, but the tribal leaders were fast learners. With the arrival of the Boers in the 1800s, the Bafokeng found themselves with no land to call their own. The then head of the Bafokeng, Kgosi Mokgatle, despatched hundreds of young men to work in the Kimberley diamond fields and return with cash in hand.

This cash was used to purchase farms, one by one, until the Bafokeng accounted for 20% of all land owned by black communities in the then Transvaal.

Under apartheid, most of its ancestral land disappeared into the now defunct homeland of Bophuthatswana, and with that the royalties to which it was entitled from platinum mining. It was a brazen act of grand larceny.

When the ANC came into power in 1994, it chose to separate surface from mineral rights and vest the latter with the state. The Bafokeng – often dubbed The Richest Tribe in Africa – had to contend with yet another attempt to relieve it of its ancestral endowment.

Some 84% of Impala Platinum’s mining lease area was on Bafokeng land on which it earned royalties – which anyone in mining knows is a fluid and fabulously creative concept.

Profits can disappear at the stroke of a pen, and in the Bafokeng’s case, they often did. Impala started mining its land in 1966 but it was only in 1978 that it received its first royalty payment. There were many years after that when no royalty payments were received.

It was the late Steve Kearney, then CEO of Impala, acting against the wishes of his seniors within the then Gencor group (later acquired by BHP Billiton), who decided to restore some trust and cordiality to the relationship between Impala and the Bafokeng.

“We remember him with gratitude and love,” says Kgosi Leruo Mologleti, head of the Bafokeng. “Steve was nearly fired by Gencor for seeking an accommodation with the Bafokeng. However, when the Impala share price rocketed, trading at R1 200 or more than 17 times from when he took over, Gencor looked the other way with a smile.”

Until then, Impala was content to rely on apartheid-era courts and tribal administration contrivances to prevent the Bafokeng from having access to details of mining activities on its land.

The Bafokeng might have owned the land, but they were not allowed to know what was happening below its surface.

Says Molotlegi: “It was Steve Kearney who opened up the Impala books for our perusal, who acknowledged the one-sided nature of the royalty agreement we then had with Impala, and who respected us as a people with legitimate rights and expectations. It was Steve who negotiated a much improved royalty agreement and reframed the relationship between us. The royalty was increased from a mere 13.5% of taxable income, to 22.5 % plus one and half million shares and one board seat.

“So significant was the Impala-Bafokeng fight that Kearney ultimately helped to resolve, that former President Nelson Mandela would comment at the funeral of my father, Kgosi Lebone I, in 1995: ‘The current legal battle between Bafokeng people and the mining houses is a stark reminder of the awkward economic legacy we inherited. Government will not interfere in the legal process, but it is not disinterested in the case, whose outcome, we believe, will have wide impact.’ We reached settlement in 1999, after 15 years of litigation.”

It was the start of a new era, with Royal Bafokeng Holdings (RBH) being formed through the amalgamation of two companies: Royal Bafokeng Resources (RBR) established in 2002, and Royal Bafokeng Finance, established in 2004.

Steve Kearney was the founder chairman and CEO of RBR, which housed Bafokeng stakes in:

  • Impala Platinum Mine (Implats);
  • Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine (BRPM), later rebranded Royal Bafokeng Platinum (RBP); and
  • Merafe Resources.

These three Bafokeng legacy assets would account for more than three-quarters of the value of the RBH portfolio. Kearney also played a fundamental role in the initial negotiations with Impala and for the BRPM mine with Anglo American in the Bafokeng’s quest for an equitable deal.

RBR and RBF were amalgamated to form RBH, by which time Kearney had sadly passed on. The final piece of the Bafokeng mining story involved the conversion of its royalty agreement into an equity share in Impala, which was executed in 2007. The Bafokeng did this because there was talk of the government appropriating mining royalties for its own benefit, on the basis that mineral rights are part of national patrimony for the benefit of all South Africans.

Through RBH, the Bafokeng managed to diversify its portfolio from relying solely on mining, to a diverse asset base in financial services, property, infrastructure and telecommunications. Mining accounts for less than 15% of the portfolio.

It is all thanks to the labours of Bafokeng men and women, and the wisdom of tribal leaders and friends such as Steve Kearney, who had the foresight and the willingness to resist a succession of carpetbaggers who would deprive the Bafokeng of their ancestral rights.

Brought to you by Royal Bafokeng Holdings.

COMMENTS   1

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Tough history. Go job fending off the ANC, which wanted your money. I want it too, but to fix pit toilets in RSA schools. Pls help govt fix em. Thanks

End of comments.

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