Behind the Limpopo chrome rush is the shadow of an apartheid death squad operative

While police and government officials were chasing informal miners from abandoned chrome mines, a former apartheid-era operative was carting off millions of rands worth of the ore.

The Mail & Guardian has learnt that a former covert apartheid Civil Co-operation Bureau operative, Johan Niemoller – who was linked to the assassination of Namibian human rights activist and Swapo member, lawyer Anton Lubowski, in 1989 – has been implicated in an illegal chrome mining operation in the Sekhukhune district of Limpopo.

According to police sources, police carried out a sting operation in August, allegedly detaining 23 trucks in various parts of the country that were ferrying the illegally mined ore. A few of the trucks were detained near the Mozambique border. The truck drivers for a Mozambican company produced documentation showing a South African company called VR Cargo had contracted them.

The M&G has established that Patrick Lightfoot, operations manager of Niemcor Africa, contacted VR Cargo to transport the chrome.

Niemoller owns Niemcor Africa.

According to people who live on the chrome belt between Atok and Burgersfort, Niemoller arrived on the scene in April. He told them that he had a mining licence for the area.

For the past six months so-called investors, including Niemoller, have lured the poor villagers with the promise of jobs and prosperity.

But when the department of mineral resources shut down the operation in July, Niemoller and other investors allegedly fled with their ill-gotten gains, leaving the miners in the lurch. This comes after failing to pay them for the past two months.

“There were at least 100 trucks leaving this area every day, filled with chrome. Where they would go, we didn’t know. But we were paid about R120 a tonne,” said a mineworker, who did not want to be named.

Prior to the arrival of Niemoller and other “investors”, the mining efforts were small-scale. It all started in 2007 when mining sites had to be rehabilitated after a company’s licence was not renewed, according to the mineworkers.

“We saw that there was a lot of earth that had been left over by the previous mining operation. We knew it was chrome that had been left behind. As a community we started picking up the chrome and selling it to buyers. We selected it by hand from the waste,” says Benjamin Thobejane.

The pillaging of the land began in earnest earlier this year, when local people were roped into an even bigger scheme.

“There are people who came up with the idea of actually mining,” said a local resident, who didn’t want to be named. “At that time only a few people were working here and there weren’t so many sites. They came in with heavy machinery and started digging. More people were hired and I think that’s when people started realising that the whole belt was filled with chrome.”

That’s when Niemoller moved in: “It was only at the beginning of this year that Johan Niemoller and his Patrick laaitie [youngster] came and started working the community. Niemoller is one of the biggest investors here – he would drive a 4×4 in and out of this area with Patrick,” said the local resident.

Niemoller’s name was frequently mentioned, with one person saying that there was a “hanging tree for that man” because he had misled the community people and failed to pay some mineworkers.

Linki Makofane (40), who has worked on the site for seven years, says everything changed when companies, including Niemoller’s, began dictating production quantities to the community members.

“People came here saying that if we can provide them with certain tonnes of chrome they would pay us. Sometimes they would pay us, sometimes they wouldn’t, saying that we had not met the targets they wanted. Yet they would still take the chrome. When you came back the next morning they would be gone with their machines,” she said.

She said that unemployment drove the mineworkers – mostly women – to accept offers from investors. “We could support our families, put food on the table and ensure children went to school. Many of the people working here were women who could sustain their children and their homes.

“The R3 500 wasn’t enough, but we had payslips, and could go to the bank and get loans to take children to university. Without that measly pay cheque we are nothing and our children will be nothing,” she said.

The chrome belt facing the R37 is covered with dark grey chrome dumps. The houses are littered across the dry, brown soil of the mountainside – one of the richest in the country.

Thobejane took the M&G for a walk through Judglust, one of the sections on the chrome belt that investors have been mining. The only sign that a mining operation did exist here is a makeshift office where hard hats dangle from hooks and invoices lie scattered beneath a table.

“At first it was just us picking up the chrome that had been left behind by the first company that mined here. We were working, getting paid and had no problems. But then the investors came along, followed by the cops, who tear-gassed us and chased us away,” he said.

He still wears his blue overalls – but now they are paired with flip-flops instead of boots. “Before these investors came along we were fine, but they came here and now we have nothing because these big companies were fighting to get more chrome. None wanted to truly help us.

“When we started working here, before the investors came, I was over the moon. I could finally pay lobola for my girlfriend and marry her. We have a six-year-old as well. I got a stand and we were in the process of building our home,” he said.

When approached for comment, VR Cargo operations manager Douw van der Walt said he was unable to comment because the matter was part of a bigger investigation. The company is based in Nelspruit and, according to its website, services Mpumalanga, Limpopo and cross-border to Maputo harbour in Mozambique.

Lightfoot did not deny knowledge of the detained trucks, but told the M&G that they did not contain cargo linked to any illegal chrome mining operation. “Yes, I know of those trucks. Those trucks left from a stockpile where we have a mining permit. Write whatever you like so we can sue you.”

Lightfoot said theyhad been issued a mining permit for farms on the chrome belt, Judglust and Winterveld, by the mineral resources department.

Lightfoot later contradicted this assertion, saying Niemcor Africa had nothing to do with Judglust but instead held a mining permit for a different mine.

According to Lightfoot, Niemoller had been “busy in that area since 2007”, helping local residents apply for a mining permit. “But the community has been fighting with each other. We’ve been fighting with them since March,” he said. He added that, beyond suggesting “the community go in with us on a permit, we [he and Niemoller] had nothing to do with those people”.

When asked about the chrome in the detained trucks, Lightfoot did not give a straight answer about how it had been acquired. At one stage he said: “There’s a very big difference between buying chrome and mining chrome.”

Mineral resources spokesperson Ayanda Shezi said the department has not issued any mining permits for the Sekhukhune area. “At the moment there is no company with an issued mining right, mining permit or prospecting right.”

She said some mining permits had been issued for the reprocessing of chrome dumps but these “have all long expired”.

Shezi confirmed that there is an investigation into illegal mining in Sekhukhune. The department has opened cases at the local police station against perpetrators it has identified.

“The machinery used for these activities was indeed impounded,” she added. “Details relating to the tonnages [and other details] will be revealed by the investigation underway.”

When the M&G attempted to contact Niemoller, his wife said he was on a flight and suggested that questions be sent to him by SMS. Numerous attempts to contact Niemoller over the past two weeks have been unsuccessful.


Just who is Johan Niemoller?

Former Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB) operative Johan Niemoller has had several run-ins with the law.

In 1998 he was implicated in an investigation into the theft of weapons from two military bases in the Free State.

In 2001, he was found guilty of dealing in uncut diamonds after he bought gems worth more than R1-million in 1998.

In 2010, a fresh scandal cropped up. Businesses that owned the prospecting rights for Lohatla farm near Postmasburg in the Northern Cape allegedly did not have a mining permit for the farm. Niemoller was named by workers, who said he had been brought in to take over mining.

But Niemoller is better known for being an operative for the apartheid-sponsored death squad the Civil Co-operation Bureau. It was this unit that was involved in a plot to kidnap four top ANC members in London in the 1980s.

Niemoller was also a South African Special Forces member between 1976 and 1981 and emerged as a central figure in the assassination of Anton Lubowski – a Namibian anti-apartheid activist and a prominent Swapo member.

He also reportedly recruited mercenaries in Europe to fight for Unita in Angola in 1998.

Niemoller was named as a leader of Die Volk, an organisation set up to arm whites to take over the country, although this is an allegation he has denied.

By 1994, Niemoller had reinvented himself as a businessperson, based in Windhoek.

He is well known in mining circles and owns a number of companies, including Niemcor Africa. He also has a farm near Lanseria.

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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