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.