Protests test tribal authority on South Africa's platinum belt

Protests test tribal authority on South Africa's platinum belt


MOGALAKWENA, South Africa (Reuters) - A new power struggle is unfolding in South Africa's old homelands between global mining giants, traditional leaders and an impoverished rural populace.

Parts of an industry long used to labor unrest are now contending with community protests that have cut production of the country's largest mineral export earner, platinum, and may shut some operations down altogether.

At the heart of the conflict are tribal leaders who have royal titles and feudal-style control over the homelands, poor rural areas designated to South Africa's black majority by its former white minority rulers during apartheid.

Tribal leaders are also key allies of President Jacob Zuma, whose political base has become increasingly rural, and his African National Congress party has drafted a law that would cement their control.

But with protests spreading across the homelands, the communities, mining companies and some within the ANC itself are moving to change what they see as an anachronistic system.

The traditional leaders have acted as intermediaries with companies which have discovered chrome and coal as well as platinum in the homelands and hope to find shale gas. Many locals say they are seeing none of the proceeds.

"If they don’t give us that 175 million rand ($13 million), we are going to shut down the mine," said Chippa Langa, a leader of the community around the Mogalakwena platinum mine, referring to a community fund set up by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats).

To avoid such an outcome, a leading human rights lawyer is negotiating with the local royal house to allow community representatives more control over the fund.

"We are renegotiating the agreement to make it more accountable," said the lawyer, Richard Spoor, whose work has included spearheading a class action suit against gold producers over the fatal lung disease silicosis which miners contract.

It is a plan that, if copied elsewhere, would dilute the power of the tribal leaders and could do the same to the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

But Spoor says he and his legal team, who are acting for the communities rather than the mine, are not undermining tradition.

"Our view is that this more democratic model is far more aligned with traditional law and custom. We don't regard the current very authoritarian top-down style of chieftanship as consistent with the traditional institution."

Zolani Mkiva, head of presidency at Contralesa, the umbrella group for South Africa's traditional leaders, agreed that the African way is bottom up, but said what he called isolated cases involving some mining deals were giving the chiefs a bad name.

"They tend to attract attention and create an impression that this represents the African way of leadership," he said.

Chris Griffith, chief executive of Amplats, a unit of Anglo American, said the company was fully behind the restructuring of the community trust and was applying the lessons learned to other deals.

"What we are trying to do is get away from some of the previous structures where we felt obliged to pay the money over to the Kgoshi (chief)," Griffiths told Reuters, noting a new-style deal on a chrome project in February. At that project, there have been no protests so far.


Discontent has not been confined to Mogalakwena, the world's largest open-pit platinum mine, where Amplats says protests two years ago cost it 8,600 ounces of its annual 200,000-plus ounces of production.

Impala Platinum's Marula mine says it lost 10,000 ounces of almost 80,000 ounces of production in the last financial year to community protests that included road blocks, vehicle stonings and assaults on people reporting for work.

A nearby chrome project it set up with a tribal council - made up of a chief and his aides - has collapsed and Impala says it may soon have to close Marula, which would be the first such shutdown in South Africa linked purely to social upheaval.

Falling platinum prices have multiplied the pressure.

Implats CEO Nico Muller told Reuters the company would not change the structure itself but wanted the two sides to resolve their differences. "The way they apply the proceeds is perceived not to benefit the broader community," he said.

Around Mogalakwena, set amid rust-tinged rocky outcrops in sweltering latitudes north of Johannesburg, resentment over grinding poverty runs deep.

"I never worked in the mine. I never got benefit, nothing," said 57-year-old Leg Phalanea as he walked down a dusty street near the mine.

The bill before parliament formalizes the current political system in the homelands with a clause allowing traditional councils to enter partnerships with any "body or institution". It says such deals "must be beneficial to the community represented by such council", but does not require consultation.

However, Richard Mdakane, an ANC MP who chairs the parliamentary committee on traditional matters, said villagers should have more say. "We are amending many clauses that were there just to make sure that the bill allows community participation in these processes," he said.

Some in the ANC are seeking to go further by ending the chief's role as custodians of land now regarded as communal by giving villagers title deeds to the land they plough.

ANC Treasurer Secretary Zweli Mkhize - seen as a contender to replace Zuma as party chief at a December conference where policy positions will also be adopted - told Reuters: "We are discussing this issue. There is a huge discussion about what kind of land tenure we need in the former homelands."

Tribal power is already ebbing in places such as Mogalakwena. Villagers there have agreed a new trust structure with four trustees: one from Amplats, one independent, and the other two from the royal Mapela clan, to replace a structure dominated by the tribal council.

Former chief Kgabagare Langa, who has been ousted in a dispute, said he is challenging his removal in court. The new chief, or Kgoshi, Hans Langa, said he could not comment on the restructuring as his lawyers were working on it.

Residents say they have received positive signals from the new chief's camp and Amplats' Griffith said the company was just waiting for him to settle in.

"It's clear the new Kgoshi will want to see peace in Mapela," said Jonathon Manamela, 53, treasurer of the Mapela Executive Committee, a community group involved in the talks. "Our culture believes you are a king because of the people."

($1 = 13.5818 rand)

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)