Prospecting for one of the world's largest platinum mines has already taken farming land from a Limpopo community.
Their future is uncertain and people are getting angrier about living in limbo
In 1994, most South Africans opened the gates to freedom. In that year, Frank Mofokeng* lost his ancestral plot and his only source of income.
One morning he woke up and walked the few kilometres to the field he had farmed for decades and found a fence had been built around it. Security guards told him to go away. The community's farmlands had become a slimes dam for one of the world's biggest platinum mines.
"I was born in the 1940s and my parents were farming on this land. I also farmed the land and it fed my family. We had enough to sell to pay for the children to go to school. Now we struggle."
This is the tale of people in towns along the booming platinum belt in Limpopo. Their nearest town is Mokopane, just south of the provincial capital Polokwane.
Today the topsoil, and everything else, is covered with the white dust that blows off the mine. But this is an area with rich earth, where Mofokeng could grow anything from maize and morogo (wild spinach)to beans. Now the villagers have nowhere to farm.
Driving through parts of the old fields that are still open, he points to where others used to farm. Now the yellow grass is tall and bushveld trees have taken over. In return for their land, the farmers were each offered R300 in a brown envelope by what he called the "consultants".
"I threw it back at them. How can you give people so little for land that used to feed them and their families?"
Mofokeng is now an old man and leans forward in his seat to look at the land, his strong but worn hands pointing as he describes landmarks.
The community was silent for two decades, he says. But then the youth decided they had had enough of not having jobs or fields to farm, as their forefathers had done. They have had mass marches to the Anglo American mine, demanding that it does more for the community it straddles.
"We are becoming unified now so we can face the mine and the king together," says Mofokeng.
But they are still afraid. People have jobs to lose and the mine is the only real employer. He also says people – he does not know where they come from – intimidate activists. This is borne out when he phones later and asks that his photograph not be used. "My family is worried that people will see me and my home and do something."
The mine pays rent to King Kgalakwena II – in 1992 his father agreed to let the mine use the land. He did not tell his subjects what had been agreed, so they heard the news through rumours and saw the erection of the fences that would bar their access. Locals can point into the distance in different directions to where they say the king has homes. A search for him proves fruitless. He is away and nobody can supply his contact details.
For this community, it is too late to stop the mining, but 20km down the road a new mine is being met with distrust by its surrounding communities. They cite the case of their neighbours and do not want to end up with nothing in return for their arable land. They welcome anyone who will listen to their story. Seeing the approaching visitors, Margaret Magabo goes inside her beautifully painted home and fetches some plastic chairs. After warm greetings and handshakes, everyone sits in a rough circle in her yard. The language spoken is Sepedi – Mokopane is 180km from Botswana.
People going hungry
"The mining committee took me to my field and told me to sign a document giving my land to the mine," she says. They promised to give her R5 250 a year in compensation.
"When I said I did not want to sign, they said my grant would be taken from me."
Her sits alongside the tar road, next to adjoining farmland on the other three sides. The plot she had used for four decades is 500m from her house, in the middle of what is now overgrown bushveld. Drilling rigs dot the horizon and the tall Waterberg mountain range looms in the background.
"I could grow alles [everything], but that stopped in May 2011." She pauses and looks in the direction of the fields. A firm look settles on her face. "What can you do with R5 250? That field gave us everything; now people go hungry."
The fields sit on top of one of the world's greatest platinum reserves. Platreef – 90% owned by Canadian company Ivanplats – has been prospecting in the area since 2000. In July, it applied for a mining rights.
The planned mining area will affect eight communities and about 15 000 people. Underground and open-pit options are being discussed. The technical report says that one of the most significant risks will pertain to "any requirement for resettlement of occupants of townships on the three farms".
Although Magabo gets R5 250 a year to replace her only source of nutrition, the mine set up committees to consult the community. Each village was supposed to have one, consisting of 12 members with a monthly stipend of R10 000 for each committee. The local chiefs also got a monthly stipend of R3 000. Community members claim these committees were made up of people who worked for the mine, and of people in the traditional leadership structures. "How can people who are being paid by the mine be honest with us and not side with their employer?" asks Masenya Syilvester, a resident of Mzombana, one of the affected communities.
The committees would approach residents to get them to sign over their land. In Refilwe Mphahlele's case, she had no choice.
"The mining committee came to us in the night and said we should take money to allow for the drilling. If we did not, they threatened us that the drilling would happen anyway," she says. "They came back and said if we did not sign they would vandalise our houses. They burnt other houses, so I said yes."
In return for a week's drilling, she was paid R3 000. She gets increasingly angry as she talks about the pipe that was used for exploratory drilling that has been left stuck in the ground of her yard.
Mphahlele says a "black liquid" leaked out of the base of the pipe for two years and flooded her yard.
The threats against her were backed up by what has become known as the "Platreef army". These were people employed in the community by the mine as "security", says David Marume, the spokesperson for the Mokopane Interested and Affected Community Committee.
They did not work near the mine and rather spent their time in the communities, threatening people who spoke out about the mining.
"They were clever because this divided the community. People had jobs and looked out for their employer and made their families keep quiet. This mine knows what it is doing," Marume says while rummaging through a briefcase of documents he has collected about the mine. "They use us and use money to turn people against each other."
The Mokopane committee was formed by the community as a democratic forum for interaction with the mine. In the past they say decisions were made on their behalf by traditional leaders, who excluded them from meetings. Each village elects five people and they take any decisions the committee makes back to their villages to vote on. "We wanted to give a proper democratic platform for the community," he says.
At first they were ignored, but last year they convinced the provincial department of mineral resources to attend a discussion with the community and the mine. During this meeting, the department said it had done its own investigations and concluded that proper consultation had not been carried out.
It issued a section 93 notice, ceasing all Platreef operations until the issues of proper public consultation had been dealt with. Drilling rigs had to be removed in February and the mining committees had to be disbanded. Public consultation would be moved to neutral areas such as schools so people did not feel intimidated, the minutes say.
Jeremy Michaels, spokesperson for Platreef, says they have entered into formal memorandums of understanding with "a host of community organisations" that include the Mokopane committee. "Our host communities are extremely important stakeholders in this project and so we have gone to great lengths to engage the community at large, hosting numerous information meetings at which community members could ask questions and interact with company representatives regarding their concerns."
He says the mine will create about 10 000 jobs over the course of construction and operation, and will bring billions into the local economy.
"We have been engaging all the parties for a long time." Because of the problems of relocating people, the mine will all be underground, he says.
The community members that Mail & Guardian talked to say they do not know what is happening with their land. The Mokopane community committee has approached Lawyers for Human Rights to lodge formal requests for all the information and correspondence around the project. "We want to know what is being planned for our community," says Marume. Most people still think the mine will be an open-cast one, like the one up the road.
With such slow progress, every group discussion is drawn between the more militant people who talk of "another Marikana" if the mining goes ahead, and those who advise the slow legal route.
"They need a social licence to use our land and if they do not have that they will not operate," says Syilvester. Much younger than the residents running the Mokopane committee, his sentences are shorter and he seems to have little patience.
Mzombana, the village where he lives, is a community of young people who have had to move because there was no space left in the surrounding villages. They are impatient and politically active. New political party Agang came here to campaign because they have had no service delivery. It is fertile ground for both crops and politicians.
The communities are not opposed to mining, but they want information and they want to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.
The worst-case scenario is that they lose their land and source of income before being moved to the townships closer to Mokopane. "This is our nightmare. They don't tell us anything so we don't know if we will be relocated. Nobody knows anything," says Marume.
When it announced that it had applied for a mining licence in June, Robert Friedland, Ivanplat's executive chairperson, said the mining would be underground. It would also create jobs and "contribute significantly to the socioeconomic development of our host communities".
None of this has been communicated and, with so much uncertainty, the community is already suffering for what they have beneath their feet. Brand Nthako, a community representative, says the 21km platinum seam is a curse. "I don't know why God decided to put platinum just under our very arable land."
*Not his real name
'Ear of the king' means 'community by the throat'
In South Africa you own the surface of the land, but the state has the right to any resources beneath it. A mine must therefore apply to the state for a mining licence. When this is awarded, they must approach the community and get a "social licence" for the operations – this is an agreement from the community to let them use the land, in return for compensation for what they are giving up.
This compensation is meant to go towards improving the community, but often stays in the pockets of local leaders. In the part of the platinum belt around Marikana, the mines put royalties into a single account for community development. But this was not audited for 19 years and millions went missing. Lonmin alone said it had paid R373-million into the account on behalf of the Bapo Ba Mogale community, which claims to have received little.
This story is repeated in many mining communities, with vast wealth being taken out of the ground next to communities that are still poor.
The biggest complaint in all the villages is that the traditional leadership system excludes them from participating in decisions that materially affect them.
In theory, kings – through their chiefs – invite their subjects to a lekgotla where they tell them what is happening. But in these cases only select people are invited.
In these places the local councillor is not the person who has the most direct power over people's lives – that is reserved for the cities.
This is an endless problem that has been created by the Constitution. At its core, traditional leadership is autocratic – a king is born to his role – and the Constitution outlines a democratic republic where people can vote to choose their representatives. Everyone is also equal.
Chapter 12 of the Constitution specifically acknowledges traditional leadership structures, but says that they must be "subject to the Constitution". The government pays salaries to traditional leaders, and the National House of Traditional Leaders has been created to advise the government.
In theory, traditional rulers are supposed to be more symbolic, and settle disputes at a village level. The councillor is then supposed to represent issues of service delivery and the needs of the community.
But in practice, rural communities are left with a king who decides their fate in things like mining applications.
If a mine can get the king to agree, it is deemed that public consultation has been done and it can go ahead. – Sipho Kings
Platreef Resources responds to Mail and Guardian
The article in question begs a thorough response. Whilst Platreef Resources respects and holds dear the value which independent journalism adds to a democracy such as ours in South Africa, we have to point out that our company was not given the right to reply to a number of issues raised in the article and other responses supplied within deadline to the reporter were completely ignored. We therefore respond as follows:
- As soon as we have received the necessary regulatory approvals, Platreef Resources intends building a highly mechanized Platinum Group, nickel, copper and gold metals mine which will undoubtedly contribute significantly to making a positive change in the socio-economic landscape of Mokopane and surrounds.
- The Project will also generate billions of Rands in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in South Africa.
- We have been exploring for many years and recently submitted a Mining Right Application, signaling our intention to build a mine which we believe will be sustainable for many decades to come;
- The Project will create some 10 000 direct and indirect jobs - and will help to further stimulate the local economy;
- We are proposing to put in place what we believe will be one of the broadest Black Economic Empowerment deals in South Africa's mining industry. Our host communities, a women's and children's trust and our employees will benefit significantly from this B-BBEE arrangement;
- The benefits of the Project for both the people of Mokopane and South Africa as a whole are clear for all to see and we are determined to stay the course. We are fortunate in that most of the groups we have been engaging with are able to look at what's best for the Community and the Country as a whole;
- Platreef intends to comply fully, both in letter and in spirit, with all relevant legislation, particularly the mining, environmental and labour laws;
- Platreef recognises that South Africa's Constitutional imperatives include socio-economic development.
Regarding the general allegations being made against us, Platreef cannot be judged by the actions of its neighbours. We are committed to ensuring that our mining project helps to change the lives of our host communities who are critical partners in our Project. We need the cooperation of our host communities and so it would make no sense whatsoever to attempt to ‘sow division’. In fact, we have explicitly and repeatedly called on community and civic leaders to assist communities to put aside their differences in the interest of ensuring that the benefits of the Project flow to the people of Mokopane as a whole. Platreef also recognises that there are different groups with different interests within the community, and we necessarily have to engage with these different interest groups in order to consult with them. Having said that, we regard all our stakeholders as being equally important. Platreef recognises the need for stability and peaceful relations between ourselves and all our neighbours and stakeholders.
Regarding MIACC's complaints that they "don't know what is going on": Platreef entered into a formal Memorandum of Understanding with a host of community organisations, including MIACC, which put in place a structure for engagement between community representatives and the company. Whilst we engage with community leaders in good faith and had agreed jointly on suitable structures for these conversations to take place, we cannot force any individual or organisation to participate and if they opt to engage with us through their lawyers, in this case Lawyers for Human Rights, then we have to respect that decision, however expensive, unproductive and cumbersome that process may be.
Furthermore, MIACC has consistently shown that it is unwilling to constructively engage on the issues at hand, opting instead to stage marches and make unreasonable demands whilst ignoring genuine attempts by the company to find common cause in the interests of the people which MIACC's leaders claim to represent. We have offered to meet MIACC in a bilateral meeting but, evidently on the advice of their legal representatives, this small group of detractors has given no indication that it is willing to do so.
Regarding the issue of 'Proper consultation': Platreef Resources held no less than 51 consultative and information-sharing meetings with communities and their leaders between 15 February and 15 August this year, reaching no less than 10 000 people directly. Our meetings are well-publicised and open to anyone, even those who have consistently attempted to disrupt these meetings. Platreef wishes to engage with all our stakeholders in a spirit of mutual cooperation, working towards the building of a mine which will clearly contribute significantly to the shared goals of job creation, socio-economic development and the general upliftment of the Mokopane area.
Regarding the so-called Platreef Army: The only army we know of in this country is that operating under the auspices of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). If this refers to security guards employed by Platreef Resources, all our service providers have to comply with the law. Platreef views allegations of transgressions of the law in a very serious light. We would welcome the full details of any complaints which have been lodged with the South African Police Service and we will also investigate any well-founded complaints against any of our contractors and/or employees, made in good faith. In the absence of cases reported to the relevant law enforcement agencies, Platreef rejects unsubstantiated allegations of harassment, intimidation, molestation and assault. We would, however, welcome the full details of any such complaints laid with the SAPS and we will investigate such complaints internally. In the event that these allegations relate to community members who were employed by the company to keep watch over our drill rigs some two years ago, the company may have erred in its genuine attempts to create employment for local community members; we were simply responding to the desperate cries from our host communities for job opportunities - and these cries continue, even by the very MIACC which demands that the company stop its operations. Platreef cannot be held responsible for the actions of individuals outside of company time unless any alleged wrongdoing is reported to the SAPS and formal complaints are also laid with the company.
On the open pit vs underground mine discussion: Platreef Resources plans to build a highly mechanised, underground Platinum Group, nickel, copper and gold metals mine which will contribute significantly to positively changing the socio-economic landscape of Mokopane and surrounds. We have long abandoned the idea of establishing an open-pit mine, precisely because of the negative impact this would have on our host communities and the associated costs. We are aware that there are some individuals who are mischievously spreading false rumours to raise tensions between our host communities and ourselves. We will, however, continue to do our best to communicate the facts about the potential for the mine to have a positive impact on the local economy and create much-needed jobs.”
Regarding the reported fears of relocation: Considering the above, the question of relocation does not arise. Simply put, there are no plans to relocate anyone.
Regarding our BBBEE deal: We are proposing to put in place what we believe will be one of the broadest Black Economic Empowerment deals in South Africa's mining industry. We have been engaged for several months now in intense consultation with our host communities and all other relevant stakeholders. This BBBEE deal will have as its beneficiaries our host communities, as well as a women's and children's trust and our employees. Benefits from the BBBEE arrangement will flow in the form of projects to be administered by a trust. The trust will be registered as a Public Benefit Organisation and will have to adhere to PBO guidelines in terms of the law.
Finally, Platreef Resources is committed to building a world-class mine in Mokopane and we will work together with all those who are genuinely interested in helping to shape a better future. South Africa is a great country but will only overcome its considerable challenges of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment if communities and civil society work together with business, government and labour. Jeremy Michaels, on behalf of Platreef Resources.