Mokopane: Tale of a town on the brink

By Rebecca Davis, Greg Nicolson & Bheki C. Simelane 21 January 2015

Mokopane, Limpopo, is a town on the brink. It’s on the brink of complete political meltdown, after years of factional fighting over corruption among municipal leaders. It could also be on the brink of a newfound prosperity, with a major platinum mine being built on its outskirts – on land previously used for small-scale subsistence farming. Some locals say they weren’t consulted properly, while mine bosses insist they must get on board or be left behind. The tensions here are emblematic of much wider social and political fraying-points. REBECCA DAVIS, GREG NICOLSON and BHEKI SIMELANE paid it a visit.

“This will be the biggest platinum mine in the world,” says Derick Tsita, gesturing towards bucolic green fields dotted with small yellow flowers. A herd of cows plods slowly by, a few hundred metres distant, beneath the foothills of the Waterberg mountains. There is little to hint at what the terrain may look like in a couple of years.

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Photo: Derick Tsita, 55, a community member angered by how the Platreef mine is being established, walks across the Platreef site where he says farmers used to grow mealies. (Greg Nicolson)

Venture through the gates a little further down a red dirt road, though, and you encounter a walled-off site roughly one square kilometer in size. It’s impossible to see within it. This is where the construction of the Platreef mine has begun, after the final granting of the mining license to Canadian company Ivanhoe’s local subsidiary Ivanplats in November last year.

We have come to Platreef, 280 km from Johannesburg, following media reports – most notably in Canada’s Globe & Mail – of growing tension between community members and mine management over Platreef’s development.

Tsita, 55, is the spokesperson for a group which has been a thorn in the mine’s side for some time: the Mokopane Interested and Affected Communities (MIAC). He lives in Masodi, one of eight villages directly impacted by the mining activity.

“This is the residents’ land,” Tsita says. “They use this land for grazing, they use this land for firewood, they use this land for subsistence farming.”

The land is, contentiously, also home to a number of graves. Ivanplats spokesperson Jeremy Michaels told Daily Maverick last week that there was “absolutely no truth to the claim that drilling is taking place close to ancestral graves”, and that “no community members ever have been blocked from grave and/or heritage sites”.

Tsita and another villager, Eliphas Molwatsi (63), were keen for us to see for ourselves the proximity of mining activity to ancestral graves.

Our approach at the gates of the site with a request to see the graves set in motion an elaborate security procedure, including the arrival of three security vehicles marked with “Special Operations Solutions”, and the requirement that every member of the group have their full details recorded. We were photographed at least twice.

“So we know whose grave it is,” explained security official Shaun Ingram. “Then we don’t even go 100 metres near it.”

It was agreed that two security vehicles would escort us to a grave which Molwatsi wished to show us. “We can’t stop them,” another security official was heard explaining.

The grave in question turned out to be no more than 15 metres from a pipe which appeared to have been used to mark prospecting activity – though mine officials say the site was inspected in December by the Department of Mineral Resources, and passed muster.

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Photo: Eliphas Molwatsi, 63, a Mokopane community member, walks past a grave site on the Platreef property. Behind him are the beginnings of the platinum mine, wrapped in a 900 metre by 900 metre wall. (Greg Nicolson)

Later, in Mokopane’s centre, we spoke to a man called Charles Ndaba, 41, who said his grandfather was buried at the site.

“There should be no noise at all at grave sites,” Ndaba said. “We can’t connect spiritually with our ancestors. Why are these people ignoring our traditional beliefs? Is it because it’s easy for them to use their bagfuls of cash to silence our voices?”

This belief – that the mining company is using money as a tool to silence, to buy influence from local leaders, and above all to divide the community – is one that was voiced repeatedly.

“Something is burning in the community,” said Molwatsi. “Here we talk about the big company, Platreef. It’s buying everything up. The municipality. Mayors fighting. The community is fighting.”

Tsita took a darker view.

“If I die, you’re the number one suspect!” he yelled at a security guard who had served as escort to the grave.

***

When Platreef MD Patricia Makhesha arrives at the mine site, it is with an air of amused irritation.

“You’re harassing me!” she complains good-naturedly upon seeing the two activists, but hugs them.

In Makhesha’s view, things are straightforward. “I am now preparing to sink shafts,” she says. “I am going to make a mine. I am going to make South Africa work, and I am going to change the lives of the 150,000 people in Mokopane.”

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Photo: Platreef managing director Patricia Makhesha arrived at the entrance to the site on Tuesday and engaged two disgruntled community members. (Greg Nicolson)

When she says the mine will change their lives, she is referring not just to the employment potential for locals, but to the 26% stake that community members will be given in the project. Molwatsi maintains that the terms of this arrangement are far from clear.

Makhesha spoke with evident frustration about the competing interests she was required to balance: “I have 20 villages, regulators, investors…”

Consultation with locals, she says, was not just adequate but exhaustive. “How many times have we talked?” she asks Tsita and Molwatsi. “150 times.”

She isn’t exaggerating for effect: Makhesha says the mine has carried out 150 meetings with the villagers in the area. Tsita acknowledges that meetings were held, but says they were not conducted properly. He says that they were not held in neutral venues, but rather in places like the kgoros – the chief’s homestead. Ivanplats acknowledges that the local chief, Valtyn Kekana, has been paid a monthly stipend for his assistance with the project.

Makhesha expresses bemusement at the activists’ concern about the level of control that the area’s traditional leadership has exerted over the mining process. “The kgosi [chief], the tribal council, the indunas of Mokopane: isn’t that your leadership, gentlemen?” she asks. “I’m from the township!”

But Tsita also says that at the meetings, the community’s concerns were not heard.

His version is backed by Osmond Mngomezulu, an attorney at Lawyers for Human Rights in Johannesburg, who is assisting the Mokopane Interested and Affected Persons Communities with an appeal against the granting of Platreef’s mining license.

“I attended some of the meetings. They were mere informational sessions,” Mngomezulu tells us over the telephone, adding that they often ended in disruption due to villagers’ discontent at the lack of two-way dialogue.

Back on the mine site, Makhesha doesn’t see how much more consultation could have been done. “When are we going to stop talking and turn it into action?” she asks Tsita. “Do I look like a dictator?”

“Yes,” responds Tsita matter-of-factly. “Of course you are.”

***

Platreef is bringing the promise of more money into this community than has ever been seen. There are suggestions – vehemently, strenuously denied by Ivanplats – that the arrival of the mine is contributing to the political chaos which currently afflicts the Mogalakwena municipality, which is the authority under which the mine’s site falls.

On the same day that we visit, DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane has chosen Mokopane as one of the stops on his country-wide tour to assess the “true” state of the nation, ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s SONA in February.

The municipality’s problems are dirty and complex, as summarized by Daily Maverick columnist Niki Moore in November last year. Mayor Tlhalefi Mashamaite is accused of corruption; a split among city councilors between those supporting and opposing Mashamaite virtually ground the council to a halt; 22 ANC councilors allegedly opposed to the misuse of municipal funds were expelled. The DA withdrew from the most recent by-elections in protest.

Maimane’s attempt to meet with the Mogalakwena municipal manager on Tuesday was allegedly physically blocked by SAPS officers wielding barbed wire, prompting the DA to release a statement accusing the municipality of being “ground zero for the abuse of power in South Africa”.

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Photo: DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane raises his fist with a woman wearing an ANC t-shirt after Mogalakwena Residents Association members, most wearing ANC t-shirts, said they would support the DA if the ANC does not stop corruption. (Greg Nicolson)

Those who came across Maimane’s interactions with members of the Mogalakwena community earlier that afternoon would have witnessed a curious scene: a rapturous response given to the DA leader by people singing, dancing – and wearing ANC T-shirts.

Down with Mantashe! they cried. Down with corruption!

“When you are suffering I am suffering!” Maimane told the crowd, to roars of approval. “Power to the people!”

Oscar Ratombo, spokesperson of the Mogalakwena Residents’ Association, was among those wearing an ANC T-shirt.

“If needs be, if the ANC fails to address our concerns as residents, next year [in the 2016 government elections], we will support DA,” he told us. He said that on the 26th of January, the Residents’ Association intends to “shut down this entire town” in protest against corruption.

“The mines are coming here, and the leadership of the ANC are eyeing their share in the mines.”

***

When we tell Patricia Makhesha of Derick Tsiba’s prediction that people may end up in danger over the Platreef conflict, she scoffs.

“Who will get killed?” she asks. “Must I get bodyguards?” (Mogalakwena mayor Tlhalefi Mashamaite, incidentally, hit headlines last year when he secured the services of 27 bodyguards at public expense.)

“Nobody will get killed because of Platreef,” Makhesha says. “Platreef is not a political entity.”

She continues: “There is nobody here who is against the project.” Tsiba nods.

Earlier, before Makhesha arrived, he acknowledged as much voluntarily. “We want development,” he said. “It’s going to alleviate poverty. What we don’t want is how Platreef runs its affairs by undermining the community. We want fairness, we want justice, we want development. We want things done the right way.”

Makhesha just wants to move forward. She cites the old proverb: you can bring a man to water, but you can’t make him drink.

“This mine is going to be built,” she says. “We are going to sink Shaft One. I want to be part of it.” DM

Photo: An DA supporter and ANC supporter sing together after a visit from the DA’s Mmusi Maimane to Mogalakwena, Limpopo. (Greg Nicolson)

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