Behind community protests in the platinum belt

Platinum miners in Rustenburg. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Platinum miners in Rustenburg. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)


A new paper reveals insights into the complexity of the land question and marries it with the plethora of issues that underlie community protests that plague the platinum belt.

This nexus of land ownership, traditional authority, government and mining elite interests, and the ultimate brunt to be borne by mining communities in the North West is explored by this recent research.

Platinum mining in the North West province has resulted in “untold suffering” for residents near to mines, according to the paper released on Wednesday. 

The paper, titled “Platinum, poverty and protests: platinum mining and community protests around Rustenburg”, was released at a seminar hosted at Wits University’s Society, Work and Development Institute (Swop), and researched by Dr Joseph Mujere and a Swop research associate from the University of Zimbabwe.  

Mujere undertook a study of three examples and sites of so-called service delivery protests: the Matebeleng and Number Nine informal settlements near Rustenburg, and Luka Village in the Bafokeng area. The research attempted to study the “impact and meaning” of service delivery protests on communities who live on the outskirts of mines, as well as land ownership and the way land-owning authorities impact on community organisation.

It also analysed the spatial geographies that have emerged in and around mining communities. 

Elite structures
Mujere’s paper is critical of mine owners and their shareholders, including politicians who moonlight as shareholders. But he also considers some traditional land ownership structures and the government as part of this elite structure, which Mujere says have benefited from the mines. This is juxtaposed with the communities studied.

“It is evident that while platinum mining has benefited mining capital and elites such as the Royal Bafokeng Nation [RBN], the wealth has failed to trickle down to the lower classes. Yet [it] is the lower classes especially the workers, villagers and residents of informal settlements that have emerged on the margins of the mines who bear the brunt of the worst effects of mining,” writes Mujere.    

Against a backdrop of wealth, communities lose their livelihoods and land, and must cope with a polluted environment as a result of these mines, he says. This finds expression in protests, which are aimed at mining companies, as well as traditional structures like the Royal Bafokeng Administration (RBA) and the Rustenburg municipality. 

Differing land ownership regimes impact on how effective these protests are, depending on which authority is responsible for service delivery. “Thus, land ownership regimes in these areas and attachment to a place arguably have a bearing on how communities construct a sense of belonging and by extension, a sense of entitlement.”  Matebeleng is situated on land owned by the Rustenburg municipality. Number Nine informal settlement is privately-owned land, but which is claimed by the RBA, while Luka village is under customary authority.

Luka’s history is instructive: according to the paper, the name Luka is derived from an Afrikaans word meaning “location” – “lokasie”. Mujere writes that it was created as a labour reserve during Paul Kruger’s time. It was comprised of thirteen clans, all related to the Bafokeng but not self-identifying as such. This allowed the Bafokeng chiefs to claim that the clans fell under their leadership, Mujere says. Subsequently, the contestation of land ownership at Luka is lengthy, and complex. It neatly demonstrates the intersectionality of colonial land dispossession, traditional land disputes and rebellion against customary authority. 

Subsequently, Luka residents were seen as “a village of rebels” by the RBA, according to Mujere. Meanwhile, the benefits of the location of a platinum mine at Luka has benefited one faction of the RBN. “It is therefore important to understand community protests in Luka in the light of residents’ sense of entitlement. The protests in Luka cannot therefore be divorced from the historical land claims made by different clans against the RBN,” Mujere writes. 

Luka is surrounded by several Impala platinum shafts and some open cast mines. Matebeleng, on the other hand, began as a squatter camp for farm workers in the 1980s. Later, Aquarius mine bought the land, but did not evict the residents. The settlement mushroomed.  It is largely a local and immigrant migrant community, Mujere writes. Today, it is surrounded by five chrome and platinum mines.    

The ownership of the land at Number Nine is disputed. Situated between two Impala Platinum shafts, it is on land that belonged to a “Mr Mutsewenyana” who inherited the land from his father, who was given the land by the Bafokeng. The RBA and the Mutswenyana family are at odds over who owns the land. Each time the municipality has tried to provide services to Number Nine, Mujere says, the RBA has “intervened claiming ownership of the land”. “It is also important to problematise the insider-outsider dialectic in these different case studies,” he says.  

“Land ownership shapes how residents frame themselves as locals in areas close to mines. At one level, a local community can be taken to refer to a community of autochthonous people who have a strong attachment to the land and were probably displaced from the lands when the mines were opened. The residents of Luka would fit into this description of local community.”

No benefits from mining operations
In the 1950s, with the establishment of mines in the North West, came the loss of farming and grazing lands.  A woman interviewed by a previous study, cited by Mujere, said: “The mines were situated exactly where it used to be our fields. And it was the chief, not the people, who benefited from them.” For employment, those in these communities have turned to the informal economy, opening spaza shops and renting out backroom shacks. Thrown into this mix is xenophobic violence: much of the informal economy is dominated by foreigners, Mujere says.  At Luka, the RBA has obstructed this. 

“However, the RBA has outlawed these spaza shops and backyard dwellings arguing that they are unsightly and that landlords needed to seek approval before constructing them. This has also been one of the ways through which the RBA seeks to maintain its hegemony and determine what is orderly and what is not.” 

Luka residents have to contend with emptying boreholes as mines sap water supplies from underground. At Number Nine and Matebeleng, which relied on water from water vendors, “there is a danger of people drinking contaminated water”, Mujere says. 

Then there is a blasting from the mines, causing not only noise pollution, but tremors that crack the walls of houses. A survey of Luka showed that most cracked houses could be attributed to tremors.  And yet, Mujere says, these residents have not benefited from the mining operations in their back yards. And so these communities often turn to the mines for help via the mines’ corporate social responsibility programmes. And then, they protest. 

Mujere says: “For communities living around the mines community protests are usually the only available option to force the municipality and mining companies to provide them with basic amenities.”

Various forms of organisation are documented in Mujere’s paper, including the formation of village forums.  Often, these forums are formed because the RBA is seen as working in cahoots with the mines. These forums had petitioned the mines for assistance before protests ensued, to no avail. For example, at Luka, when mine operations cracked their houses and shifted the windows of their homes out of place, Mujere says they approached Implats for help. They were ignored, but then, they embarked on a protest. 

It was only after that that mine management met with the community and stopped open cast mining at the site. But open cast mines a little further away from the village continued. 

A litany of service delivery problems across the three communities is explored, in considerable detail, in Mujere’s paper.  From petitioning the municipality for clean water, to refusing to pay for water because mines had contaminated that water, and the intervention of the RBA – so often viewed as an illegitimate parental body with which residents did not self-identify. 

Ultimately, it is where land ownership intersects with the deprivation of these communities’ basic rights, by their local municipality and the mines, that complicates and often exacerbates their struggles. 

Mujere concludes: “It can thus be concluded that the historical geographies of the three case studies presented here have helped shape the way residents of the communities engage mining companies and different regimes of authority.”

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans


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