The premier, the farm and the platinum mine

ANC heavyweight Ngoako Ramatlhodi’s hush-hush participation, while premier of Limpopo, in a property deal near a platinum mine raises new questions about his suitability for high office.

A Mail & Guardian investigation appears to implicate him in abuse of office or corruption.

Ramatlhodi has made a political comeback as President Jacob Zuma’s point-man in the justice area after years in limbo while the Scorpions probed claims that he took kickbacks from a social-grants contractor. The probe was dropped last November and the High Court admitted him as an advocate in April.

In the past fortnight he has been appointed chair of Parliament’s justice committee and seconded to the Judicial Service Commission, which shortlists judges—both ethically sensitive positions. He is also seen as a contender for the position of National Director of Public Prosecutions.  

Whose farm was it?
Ramatlhodi’s part in the 1996 purchase of a farm near an Anglo Platinum mine in Limpopo was partly obscured by the fact that a close corporation acted as the buyer.

The CC, Ngoako Properties, bore Ramatlhodi’s first name, but was owned on paper by Limpopo businessman Johannes Mogodi—who told the M&G he has been Ramatlhodi’s friend since exile.

Ngoako Properties sold the farm two-and-a-half years later to Angloplat for the company’s controversial resettlement of communities affected by the mine. Ngoako Properties’ profit approached R1-million.

If Ramatlhodi or Mogodi profited from the former’s inside knowledge as premier, it was an abuse of office. Angloplat needed Ramatlhodi’s government for approvals, including for aspects of the resettlement plan.

But who really owned the farm? Ramatlhodi and Mogodi’s versions differ.

Four years ago Ramatlhodi said in confidential correspondence with the Scorpions: ‘During 1996, I bought a farm in Mokopane area through a nominee Mr Mohodi [sic].” (Ramatlhodi made the correspondence public, perhaps unintentionally, by attaching it to his application for admission as an advocate).

But Mogodi said: ‘I wanted to buy [the farm]. I said to Ngoako as a friend, ‘Let me buy, then in future when you retire, maybe you can pay me and take it over.’”

He insisted that the arrangement was never consummated and that he, Mogodi, remained the owner of the farm and the cattle on it.

If Ramatlhodi’s version is true, it means he took the profit from Angloplat, reinforcing the possibility that he abused his office.

Should Mogodi’s version stand it means Ramatlhodi lied to the Scorpions. This would undermine a key pillar of his defence in the Scorpions’ kickbacks investigation, as he claimed that money apparently paid to him by a social-grants contractor in fact came from the sale of cattle on the farm.

A third possibility is that Mogodi paid for the farm but Ramatlhodi benefited. This would expose Ramatlhodi to charges of a corrupt relationship with Mogodi, who subsequently benefited from a casino licence.

Ramatlhodi declined to answer questions, accusing the M&G of aiming to ‘tarnish my good name and reputation, a feat your paper and fellow collaborators in the Scorpions have thus far failed to achieve. I therefore challenge you and your fellow-travellers to publish the story. Let us meet in court.”

Buying
In 1993 Mogodi bought the farm, Groenfontein, west of the communal lands surrounding Angloplat’s Potgiersrust Platinums Ltd mine near Mokopane. The following year Angloplat bought portions 12 and 13 of the neighbouring Sterkwater, starting a campaign to buy private farms to offer to affected communities for resettlement and agriculture.

It was to a village on portions 12 and 13—opened by Ramatlhodi as premier—that Angloplat would move the Ga-Pila community in 2001.

By 1995 two more portions of Sterkwater and much of De Hoogedoorns farm next door were on the market.

Around then, says Angloplat literature, the mine started negotiating the Ga-Pila’s relocation with their traditional leader, Kgoshigadi Athalia Langa.

Separately, Langa and her people started fundraising to buy the Sterkwater-De Hoogedoorns farm to secure extra agricultural land, says community activist Phillopos Dolo.

But Mogodi/Ramatlhodi got in first. In January 1996 Mogodi, on behalf of the still-unformed Ngoako Properties, offered R2,2-million for the property and R600 000 for cattle and equipment, sale records show.

Did Ramatlhodi, then the province’s premier, have inside knowledge that Angloplat might soon want Sterkwater-De Hoogedoorns for its resettlement programme? The evidence is compelling, though circumstantial:

  • Langa, the traditional leader with whom Angloplat negotiated, was an ANC member of the Limpopo legislature.
  • The area fell in the constituency of advocate Seth Nthai, then a legislature member and safety and security minister under Ramatlhodi, to whom he was close. Nthai denies discussing Angloplat’s resettlement plans with Ramatlhodi.
  • Angloplat dealt with and had to obtain approval from Ramatlhodi’s administration for environmental assessments relating to its mining and resettlement plans.
The Constitution bans members of the provincial executive from using ‘their position or any information entrusted to them, to enrich themselves or improperly benefit any other person”.

After Mogodi’s offer was accepted Sterkwater-De Hoogedoorns was transferred to Ngoako Properties in July 1996. But who paid—Mogodi or Ramatlhodi?

Whose benefit?
Both Mogodi and Ramatlhodi were associated with the purchase:

  • Ngoako Properties, represented by Mogodi, raised a bond just short of the R2,2-million price for the property.
  • Ngoako Properties raised a R2,8-million First National Bank loan facility, equal to the price of the property plus the cattle and equipment. Ramatlhodi showed his hand by signing co-surety with Mogodi—as revealed in a later FNB lawsuit.
  • Mogodi raised a second bond against his own Groenfontein farm. This matches a claim by Mogodi that he ‘put up Groenfontein” as surety for the FNB loan.

    Both Mogodi and Ramatlhodi took risk—but who would service the bonds and FNB loan?

    On available evidence it seems the understanding was that Mogodi would pay. When FNB sued Ramatlhodi in 1999 for R1,1-million allegedly outstanding on the loan Ramatlhodi said in court papers that although he signed co-surety the onus was on Mogodi, who was ‘ready, willing and able” to pay a reduced sum. Mogodi agreed, telling the M&G: ‘Ramatlhodi refused to pay FNB because it was supposed to come from me.”

    But benefits of ownership appear to have accrued to Ramatlhodi. Two neighbours, speaking anony­mously, said they were under the impression Ramatlhodi was the owner.

    Selling
    In 1997 Angloplat continued its property spree, buying Blinkwater. In September 1998 Angloplat offered Ngoako Properties just under R3,2-million for Sterkwater-De Hoogedoorns, deeds records show. Ngoako Properties accepted.

    In just two-and-a-half years Ngoako Properties cleared about R1-million, less VAT and, possibly, agent’s commission.

    Angloplat denied it sought improper favour with Ramatlhodi, claiming the price was market related and that it thought the farm was Mogodi’s.

    Mogodi denied impropriety. Maintaining he was the true owner of Sterkwater-De Hoogedoorns, he said he had sold it to Angloplat because it was being vandalised. ‘I cannot say [the price offered by Angloplat] was fair, but for me it was a relief, because of the vandalising.”

    He refused to comment further.

    Nthai, Mogodi and the casino connection
    When Ngoako Ramatlhodi takes his seat at the Judicial Service Commission he will be joining an old friend—Seth Nthai.

    Nthai is no stranger to Ramatlhodi’s involvement in the purchase of a farm near an Anglo Platinum mine. He is also familiar with casino rights acquired by Ramatlhodi’s partner in the purchase, Johannes Mogodi.

    As a member of the Limpopo legislature between 1994 and 1999 Nthai’s constituency included the area around the Angloplat mine. As Ramatlhodi’s safety and security minister he visited the area to deal with trouble stemming from the resettlement of communities affected by the mine, an activist told the Mail & Guardian.

    And since 1999, when he left politics for law, he has represented the affected communities, but on a legal retainer funded by Angloplat—a bone of contention between community activists and the miner.

    When FNB sued Ramatlhodi for R1,1-million in 1999 because he had signed surety, with Mogodi, for a R2,8-million loan facility for the farm, Nthai was Ramatlhodi’s counsel.

    By that time Mogodi already aspired to own casino rights in the province. In 1997, while he and Ramatlhodi were involved with the farm, Mogodi joined Great North Resorts, which applied when the Limpopo gambling board invited bids for casino licences.

    The licensing was abandoned when the High Court found corruption and procedural irregularities in the adjudication.

    In early 2000—while Nthai was defending Ramatlhodi in the FNB matter—Ramatlhodi’s executive council selected a new gambling board to restart the casino licensing process—with Nthai as chairperson.

    This time Mogodi joined Domba Empowerment Corporation, which, in turn, joined Sun International to form Meropa Leisure and Entertainment—which got the licence.

    A list of shareholders released by the gambling board shows that Mogodi Investments, led by Mogodi, owned 4,9% of Meropa, making it one of the larger shareholders.

    Nthai’s role bears scrutiny: as Ramatlhodi’s advocate he knew that Ramatlhodi had told FNB to recover the farm debt from Mogodi. As gambling board chair he presided during the same period over the selection of a casino consortium that included Mogodi.

    This raises the question: did Mogodi increase his chance in the casino stakes by funding a farm beneficially owned by Ramatlhodi?

    Nthai denied any legal or ethical problem, saying Mogodi’s stake in Meropa was held openly and that ‘the defences raised [in Ramatlhodi’s plea to the FNB claim] do not in any way suggest that Messrs Mogodi and Ramatlhodi’s finances were intertwined”.

    He did not explain how their co-signing a surety for the FNB loan did not suggest entwined finances.

 
Stefaans Brümmer
Sam Sole

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung.
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