The unofficial title of Africa’s richest ethnic group goes to the Bafokeng people of South Africa whose population totals a princely 300,000 subjects. At the last count, they were worth $4 billion. How did that happen, asks our correspondent Pusch Commey, in a global narrative of African poverty and colonial dispossession?

The  story goes that the Bafokeng people of South Africa, whose totem is a crocodile with closed jaws, came by its wealth through a dogged determination to own its land. Tracing its ancestry from the 12th century, they occupied the Rustenburg belt of South Africa’s Northwest Province as farmers until European migration interfered with their way of life, and encroached on their existence.

Somewhere during the last millennium, Kgosi (King) Sekete III, who ruled in the early 1700s, became the first in the line of Bafokeng kings, of which the current kgosi, Leruo Molotlegi, is the 15th direct descendant. Sekete III was followed by kings Diale, Ramorwa, Sekete IV, and Thethe. To this day, the Royal Bafokeng Nation (RBN) has retained its unique cultural identity and traditional leadership.

The name Bafokeng means “people of the dew”, or “people of the grass”. Oral tradition suggests that when the Setswana-speaking people settled in the Rustenburg valley, about 150km northwest of Johannesburg, they encountered a heavy dew overnight, signifying that the land would be fertile and hence the community would prosper.

Arguably the most influential king in Bafokeng history was Kgosi August Mokgatle, who reigned from 1834 to 1891. Pooling community resources, he started buying back, from white colonialists, the land the Bafokeng had occupied for centuries but which had been appropriated by colonialists.

Steadily a series of “farms” were purchased that now make up the bulk of what is today the land of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. Young men were sent out to the mines to work and contribute to a fund for these purchases.

In 1925, the world’s largest deposits of the platinum group of metals, such as platinum, rhodium and palladium, were discovered on Bafokeng lands. But that was not the end of the story. Under white rule, mining companies paid a pittance in royalties to the RBN in exchange for the right to mine these metals.

Apartheid South Africa’s 1913 Natives Land Act prevented blacks from owning land outside certain areas which made up just 13% of the country, so German missionaries helped the Bafokeng set up a trust to hold it on behalf of the community, which they were able to fully reclaim at the end of white minority rule in 1994.

During the apartheid era, social engineering had created the Bantustans or black homelands with tinpot dictators, who were stooges of the white regime. One such was the strongman Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana.

Mokgwaro George Molotlegi (born 1936, died 1997) was the brother of Kgosi Edward Patrick Lebone Molotlegi, who ruled the Bafokeng from 1988 to 1994. Kgosi Lebone’s opposition to the Bantustans brought him into conflict with Lucas Mangope, who detained the Bafokeng king and harassed him until he was forced to flee to neighbouring Botswana.

Mangope then recognised Mokgwaro George Molotlegi as Kgosi of the Bafokeng. This situation prevailed until 1994, when Mangope was forced out of power as Bophuthatswana reintegrated into South Africa. This enabled Kgosi Lebone to return to Phokeng, the sleepy capital of the Bafokeng kingdom, and to once again lead his people. His return was marked by tumultuous celebrations, but they were short-lived, as Kgosi Lebone died in November 1995.

The would-be kgosi Mokgwaro George Molotlegi returned to his home in the area and remained there until his own death in December 1997. Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Moletlegi, the 36th recorded monarch of the Bafokeng people, was enthroned in August 2003. His predecessor was his elder brother, King Lebone II. Kgosi Leruo became the 15th member of the current dynasty.

Getting the land

Getting the land was only half the battle, according to Mpueleng Pooe, a lawyer and spokesman for the Bafokeng nation. What followed in the 1990s was a “David and Goliath” battle between the nation and Impala Platinum Holdings.

After nearly five years of “very acrimonious” court battles, Pooe explains, the corporation settled and the Bafokeng won 22% of the platinum royalties in 1999. Their next smart move was to convert this into equity, making David the largest shareholder in the empire of the Goliath of Impala.

The value of the Bafokeng’s stake in Impala tripled to more than $50 million by 2001, and they receive annual royalties of approximately $63 million from platinum mining. Much of the terrain is rolling grassland, and farming was the primary occupation until the discovery of the Merensky Reef in 1925, a foot-thick layer of platinum-rich rock, one of the richest platinum deposits in the world.

The RBN has established a sovereign wealth fund, Royal Bafokeng Holdings, an investment entity in Johannesburg, which is responsible for overseeing the growth and maintenance of the community’s income streams.

It is considered to be Africa’s most progressive community investment model, with total assets under management at approximately $4 billion. The RBN has invested royalties and dividends in a number of projects, and in civic administration and social services. These include:

Royal Bafokeng Sports, which is in charge of sports development among the residents of the area. A 45,000-seat stadium and athletics complex was built in Phokeng in 2000. The Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace was an official venue for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where the England team was based.

Royal Bafokeng Administration (RBA), which is principally a town planning unit charged with service delivery and monitoring the progress of a Master Plan across all the regions, looks after the various wards

(kgotla) within the Nation to ensure that infrastructure and services are in line with the long-term vision.

Royal Bafokeng Institute (RBI), whose goal is to improve education and learning in the Royal Bafokeng Nation.

RBN has also recruited several manufacturing companies to Phokeng as part of a drive to expand the nation’s exports beyond raw materials.

The national government model

Successive ANC governments since 1994 have sought to empower blacks through partnering with big mining companies in what is called BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) deals, where these companies are compelled to sell a significant stake to black consortiums.

BEE has been severely criticised in that it has only enriched a few politically-connected blacks, and is financed by white capital to blend companies and assets. Such deals have been far from representative as they have not enriched a broad base of poor blacks.

Now the Bafokeng, flush with their own cash, and easily  recognisable as a broad-based community, have become an attractive suitor for the mining giants in their bid to blend and keep their new order mining licences.

In a deal in December last year, Anglo Platinum fully concluded a BEE transaction with the Bafokeng, who are also known as Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela.The deal was Anglo Platinum’s sixth BEE transaction, four of which have been 50:50 joint ventures, with politically-connected black consortiums.

The transaction was first  announced in November 2006, in terms of which the Bakgatla acquired a 15% interest in Anglo Platinum’s Rustenburg Platinum Mines’ Union section. At a general meeting of the Bakgatla community in November 2006, the community members voted in favour of the transaction.

Anglo Platinum and the Bakgatla have established an exploration joint venture to further develop the other properties. The Bafokeng’s initial stake in the exploration joint venture will be 26%.

Further, Anglo Platinum has ceded a 55% interest in the prospecting rights of Rooderand, a major mine. Anglo Platinum expects the deal to have contributed between 2% and 3% towards the achievement of the historically disadvantaged South Africans’ ownership participation targets.

The Bafokeng are not without problems. The unemployment rate is high, but their mines pay workers about the same as other platinum firms. There are issues of crime and HIV infection. But wages appear to go much further because of the kingdom’s social spending.

The kingdom sends out vans to shuttle residents to receive free medical treatment. In Phokeng schools, classmates play soccer under solar-powered floodlights on a synthetic pitch imported from Italy; facilities that would be difficult to find elsewhere in the platinum belt.

Public schools in the kingdom have, at the minimum, qualified teachers, books, desks and electricity. There is also a “magnet school” for the best and brightest, with extra money to upgrade facilities.

The ratio of students passing a high school graduation exam in the Bafokeng kingdom is about 20 percentage points above the national average. Ambitions among the Bafokeng are realisable because they are not impeded by a lack of funds.

Most miners in the Bafokeng Nation live with their families in modest homes connected to electricity lines and clean water, and along paved roads where garbage is regularly collected.

The conditions are far better than the shanties around many South African platinum mines, where miners pay to live alone in shacks without water, electricity and plumbing, but send money to extended families far away.

The road ahead

The current kgosi, Leruo Molotlegi, 46, is a savvy architect and town planner. He became king in 2000 after the deaths of two older brothers. He chairs the Supreme Council of 82 Bafokeng traditional leaders, which rules the 300,000-strong community and decides how to spend the money.

He had big dreams, which included setting up Royal Bafokeng Holdings in 2006 to manage and develop its commercial assets, merging two other funds. Apart from being a major shareholder of Impala Platinum, it also owns shares in Zurich Insurance Company South Africa, and in the major telecoms firm, Vodacom, as well as local manufacturers.

At the current rate of platinum extraction, the mineral reserves in the Bafokeng land will last another 35 to 40 years, according to the nation’s estimates. Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi understands that the platinum wealth provides only a short timeframe to transform the nation. “Our governance and internal controls must be benchmarked against the very best,” he wrote in the RBN master plan. “Our plans must be realistic and affordable.”

This challenges the Bafokeng people to reduce their dependency on their diminishing mineral assets and to become a self-sufficient community within the first 20 years of this century, whilst also maintaining the Bafokeng culture. The main sectors of emphasis of the Bafokeng Vision 2020 fall into the following areas:

Investment diversification

Economic development

Education planning


Health and social planning

A crime-free environment

Kgosi Leruo is trying to break what has become known as Africa’s resource curse – the awful paradox which has seen some of the continent’s worst poverty and instability concentrated in areas boasting its greatest natural riches.

When he unveiled his master plan in 2006, to turn the sleepy capital Phokeng into something closer to Malaysia or Singapore, he told a stunned audience that rural development was “bland” and “defeatist”.

“I want more than that for the Bafokeng people,” he told them. “It is founded on the idea that if you want to achieve big things, you have to dream big, and take big calculated risks to reach beyond your limitations.”

That risk, taken from his visionary ancestors, and continued down the line, has set Africa’s richest ethnic group well on course to a glittering future.

Originally posted: Bafokeng: Africa’s richest ethnic group