In the town of Bapong in North West, a web of deceit, corruption and violent intimidation has enriched three men at the expense of 40,000 (mostly unemployed) members of the community. In late September the violence reached new levels, with the town descending for a few days into a state of all-out urban conflict. Why did the local police, the traditional council and the provincial government appear to either look away or actively take sides? Given that Bapong is on Marikana land, what part did mining company Lonmin play? Most urgently, what was the role and mandate of those seemingly untouchable ‘three men’? An investigative feature by KEVIN BLOOM.
I. Human rights catch a fright
Consider a few facts about the land that Kgomotso Morare calls home. It is regarded politically and legally as “tribal land”, but the 1926 title deed does not formally recognise the claim of the people to its fruits. It is situated atop some of the world’s richest platinum and chrome reserves, but since 1938 the people have been excluded from almost all negotiations over mining royalties. It is subject to a land claim by the descendants of the original nineteenth century purchasers, but in 2008 a cabal of pretenders affiliated to the so-called “chief” blocked the application.
Throw in the fact that the current mine operators, according to evidence led at the Farlam Commission, refuse to acknowledge a) the realities of endemic local unemployment, b) the social costs of their own migrant labour workforce, or c) the fallout from their own environmental waste-laying, and you begin to understand why this land is the site of the largest state-sanctioned massacre of human beings in recent South African history.
That said, the violence at the Marikana koppie on 16 August 2012, although it took place within a few kilometres of his home, is not what Kgomotso Morare is here today to talk about. For Morare and his activist colleagues Tshepang Mantu, Abbey Mafate and Lesego Kgobane, the real violence began in 2014, when three men claiming to represent the community swapped the 12 percent annual royalties off the platinum mines for R100 million in cash and R540 million in equity in Lonmin PLC. The transaction was concluded without the consultation required under living customary law, the Mineral Petroleum Resources Development Act or the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act. In other words, the terms of the deal were kept secret from just about every member of the 40,000-strong Bapo Ba Mogale community.
“As I’m sitting here today, it’s my daughter’s birthday,” Morare yells into the mike. “I cannot be at home because of the fear!”
The venue is Forum 3 of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and Morare has just woken everybody up. So far, on this Wednesday morning of 28 September 2016, the submissions to the hearings into the “socio-economic conditions of mining communities” have been colourless, soporific, mostly devoid of emotion. But when Morare begins to describe how he was recently “chopped by pangas,” that all changes. He names Lehlohonolo Nthontho, the CEO of Bapo Ba Mogale Investments—one of the three men responsible for the abovementioned R640 million deal with Lonmin—as the individual who ordered the assault. He talks about the R220 million invested by Nthontho in a bus company, and wonders aloud how it will benefit the community. “When we ask such questions,” says Morare, “that’s when we get attacked.”
The SAHRC, in their response, appear genuinely shaken. They name four “systemic issues” that Morare’s submission raises, the first to do with the community’s non-inclusion and the second to do with the mine’s non-concern. The third issue, however, is what seems to really scare them. “It could be the first time we’re facing it here,” they say, “the question of the creation of local kingpins.”
If the HRC commissioners had been familiar with the founding affidavit in the case brought by members of the Bapo Ba Mogale community against, among others, the national government, Lonmin and Nthontho, they would have known how this kingpin had begun to recruit his henchmen. Lodged with the Pretoria High Court in June 2015, the affidavit alleged that in July 2014, shortly before the deal with Lonmin was signed, Nthontho paid R800 per head to 1,200 unemployed locals to distribute notices on the transaction. Problem was, according to the court papers, that members of the community “were asked to sign the notice titled ‘Bapo Ba Mogale community consultation process form’ before receiving the form titled ‘Lonmin transaction—Benefits to the Bapo Ba Mogale Traditional Community’.”
Meaning, the residents had to give their consent to the deal before they could get any information about the deal.
Photo: Lonmin mining infrastructure towers over the Marikana landscape. (Photo: Sobantu Mzwakali)
In the following months, as dissatisfaction with the deal and its opaqueness grew, the core of the original 1,200 coalesced into a group known as “The Ambassadors”. On a visit to Bapong in October 2016, the Daily Maverick would learn from members of the community that if these men couldn’t take their payment in cash, they would sometimes take it in liquor. Their job description was clear—to act as Nthontho’s bodyguards, and to silence his most vocal critics.
And so to the HRC’s fourth systemic issue, the issue that sums it all up:
“What is the role of SAPS? Are they supporting this local kingpin? Is the mine supporting him as well? If this country is not going to go up in flames, we need to establish the rule of law.”
II. Casualties of battle
There is a risk inherent in the use of violence as a deterrent, a risk that can—and often does—escalate a few isolated incidents into the realm of all-out war. The risk is this: if the resolve of the victims isn’t crushed, they may become more determined.
Did Kgomotso Morare, Tshepang Mantu, Abbey Mafate and Lesego Kgobane know that on Saturday 24 September they would be protagonists in this timeless drama? They couldn’t have been oblivious. In the sworn statement Morare gave to SAPS, after declaring that he was an adult male residing in the town of Bapong in North West, he declared that on Wednesday 21 September “it was publicly announced on MadibengFM radio that Lehlohonolo Nthontho’s file at Home Affairs was not complete and that his birth certificate could not be traced.” The third item of the statement revealed that Morare called in to MadibengFM, and complained on air that Nthontho, as the CEO of Bapo Ba Mogale Investments, couldn’t be accountable to the community if he wasn’t a South African citizen. Morare then suggested that the community hold a meeting to discuss Nthontho’s leadership.
As Morare and his colleagues would’ve been all too aware, in July 2016 a crowd of around 150 people, including members of The Ambassadors and the Bapo Ba Mogale traditional council, forced MadibengFM to cancel a planned interview with critics of Nthontho. The crowd stormed the offices of the community radio station; chanting, slamming doors, demanding to speak to the manager. According to a report in GroundUp, “police were called to the scene and facilitated an agreement between the radio station and the traditional council that the station should stop reporting on Bapo issues.”
Lesego Kgobane’s response to the silencing was both on-the-record and uncowed. “That’s rubbish, I am pissed off,” he told GroundUp. “We are supposed to be telling the community what is happening.”
Meanwhile, the threats from The Ambassadors were beginning to rise in rate and fury—Nick Motloung, the presenter of the cancelled show, had been told he was on a hit list; Morare, Mantu, Mafate and Kgobane would all hear similar things. And so on Thursday 22 September, when Morare and Mantu and about a dozen other community members showed up at the door of the royal palace occupied by Rangwane Emius Mogale, they knew the stakes. Mogale, the acting regent of the Bapo Ba Mogale, was the second signatory to the Lonmin deal; his son Vladimir was the third. Initially Mogale agreed to facilitate a meeting between the concerned community members and the traditional council, but after he spoke to his son on the phone he changed his mind. Morare and the community members left the palace to discuss their options. They decided to hold their own meeting that coming Saturday, at the Nkukime sportsground in Bapong.
Morare’s sworn police statement reveals that by 10am on Saturday 24 September, when about 60 community members had gathered, Mantu took the floor. As he was addressing the gathering, “a group of around 200 to 300 people” arrived at the sportsground, and began to demolish the church tent. Led by Hilton “Dibaba” Mokubung and “three large muscular men,” the group then walked across to the community meeting to ask Mantu what he wanted from Nthontho.
“Then three men grabbed Mr Mantu and started beating him,” Morare declared in his statement. “I heard Mr Mokubung mention my name and he seemed to be looking for me. I was scared that they were going to try to hurt me too, so I left the sports field and went into a house nearby.”
For the rest of the day and intermittently over the days that followed, Bapong was in a state of low-level urban conflict. Late on Saturday, after their car was pelted with bottles and stones, Kgobane and his young son had to abandon the vehicle and flee to the sanctuary of a nearby house. This happened after Kgobane had been followed by a bakkie owned by the Bapo traditional council.
“I don’t think I am going to see the morning,” Kgobane said, when he called researchers at UCT’s Land & Accountability Research Centre (LARC) for help.
During the nights of Saturday, Sunday and Monday, a black car would repeatedly park itself across the gate of the home of Abbey Mafate—just before the requested police patrols would arrive, the car would leave. As for Morare, after visiting Mantu in the local clinic on Saturday afternoon, he went back to the area of the sportsground on a tip-off that SAPS wanted to meet.
“The policemen that arrived on the scene were from Mooinooi police station,” Morare’s sworn statement would note. “One of the policemen was Captain Mathloko. He was aware of a previous case I had opened, CAS 4/8 2016, in which I had been threatened and intimidated by Mr Mokubung and his associates, but neither he nor his colleagues had ever investigated this case. This had caused me to lose confidence in the Mooinooi police station.”
Was this lack of confidence founded? That depends on what you make of the following items in Morare’s statement:
After the police left, we had a brief meeting amongst ourselves. Then I decided to go home. My mother’s cousin, Mr Mafate, offered to drive me home.
Mr Mafate and I drove towards my grandmother’s house. However, a white Toyota doublecab FCC819 NW was parked horizontally across the road to block anyone from proceeding. I saw Mr Mokubung in the car. We we were forced to stop driving.
Then Mr Mokubung, Neo “Motrambi” Ngele and about five large muscular men walked towards our car. They opened the doors to the car and took out the car keys. They then proceeded to drag us out of the car and start beating us.
One of the men asked me “What was the meeting about?” and “Why do you want to remove Lehlohonolo Nthontho?” I did not answer him. At that point, Mr Mokubung approached me from behind and hit me on the back of my head with a large knife in the shape of a panga. This caused a large wound on the back of my head which started bleeding profusely. I then fell down. Mr Mokubung and others kicked me while I was lying on the ground.
Then Mr Mokunbung attacked me again with the knife and caused two more large head wounds. I began to feel dizzy because I was losing blood and was in a lot of pain, but I managed to run away.
Photos: Kgomotso Morare’s panga injuries.
In fear for his life, after he was discharged from hospital, Morare fled to Johannesburg. According to Brendan Boyle of LARC, Morare, Mantu and others were called repeatedly by a police officer named Montoedi on Tuesday 27 September. The officer told them to report to the Mooinooi police station in the Bapo Ba Mogale area—if they did not, the officer allegedly said, charges against the people who attacked them on Saturday would be dropped. When they refused, Boyle said, Montoedi threatened to arrest them.
Boyle also told the Daily Maverick this:
“About an hour after the last conversation [on Tuesday 27 September], police began to arrest people who had attended Saturday’s meeting on charges of holding an illegal gathering. By 10pm on Tuesday, at least three people had been arrested. Community members were told they might also face charges of intimidation relating to their visit on Thursday [22 September] to the home of Rangwane Emius Mogale.”
So the gathering of “200 to 300” of Nthontho’s people was legal, but the gathering of 60 community activists was not? If the police weren’t going to offer protection to the Bapo Ba Mogale, they would have to get it somewhere else.
III. The PP comes to town
“Madame Madonsela, you managed bra’ Zuma, what is so difficult about Bapo?”
It is the afternoon of 8 October 2016, and Morare is back in Bapong. Although he had told the Daily Maverick on 28 September that he would be risking his life if he returned, he has decided that the risk is worth it—for today is the day that the outgoing public protector has promised her final report.
Photo: Public Protector Thuli Madonsela addresses the Bapo Ba Mogale on her sixth last day in office; on her left sits Rangwane Emius Mogale. (Photo: Sobantu Mzwakali)
The last time Thuli Madonsela was in town was on 29 July 2016, when she read out the findings of her preliminary report. In the same hall that the community is gathered today, she informed the Bapo Ba Mogale of the results of her investigation into the alleged looting of their collective resources, with a focus on the funds held in so-called account “D ”.
Madonsela had been asked to investigate
a) the flow of money into the account from 1994 to date,
b) what the money had been spent on,
c) the identities of the individuals that had authorised the payments,
d) the identities of the beneficiaries, and
e) the question of royalties—specifically, whether all of the funds due to the community from Lonmin and other mining houses had been paid.
In summary, Madonsela explained in July, the community had R721,000 to its name when the auditor general audited the account in 1994. Over the next two decades, the total funds in the account amounted to more than R617 million, comprised of R392 million in deposits and R224 million in interest earned. By 2014, the balance in the account had dropped to just over R495,000. After the deal was done with the “newly established investment wing,” about R40 million in royalties had come in—but most of that money had since been spent.
“What this means is that, basically, all of the money earned has been spent,” Madonsela said, adding that the investigation team was aware of the identity of some of the officials that had been authorising expenditure, and that those still in office would be brought to book.
The community had expected these individuals to be named today, but it hasn’t happened. The only real information Madonsela has added is that another R40 million in royalties has come into the account. “But you have borrowed from the Public Investement Corporation over R100 million,” she’s said, “which means at the moment that you are in debt.”
At this, today’s crowd has let out wolf whistles and jeers. A similar response has greeted the repetition of the old information that the largest expense has been on the royal palace—the budget had been R20 million, and the latest forensic report indicated an expenditure of R80 million. The reason for the delay in issuing the final report, Madonsela has explained, is that since July an independent forensic investigator has been appointed “to check each and every cent of the R800 million that has gone missing.” Also, she’s said, a quantity surveyor has been employed “to account for every brick that has been laid.”
In closing, the public protector has vowed that the final report would be ready by the end of the year. “In the meantime, we are asking you to stop accusing each other of any theft or wrongdoing.”
Photo: Kgomotso Morare addressed Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. (Photo: Sobantu Mzwakali)
But question time has punched a giant hole in Madonsela’s request. Morare, who has appeared in the hall to everyone’s surprise, is going at it hammer and tongs. He mentions Nthontho, makes the comparison to Zuma, reminds the hall that he has been “chopped” by a panga, directly asks the public protector why she hasn’t delivered on her promise. He says he has come back to Bapong “because this is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The words may be vintage Mandela, but the stance and voice are modern Malema—it’s uncanny in this moment how much the 36-year-old resembles the commander-in-chief of the EFF.
Watch: Kgomotso Morare addresses Public Protector Thuki Madonsela (Video: Sobantu Mzwakali)
And then he does another thing worthy of his doppelganger in the red beret—he taunts the “hooligans” on the left of the stage, who he knows to be members of The Ambassadors, the same people who want him dead.
As it had done at the Human Rights Commission ten days before, Morare’s submission elicits a revealing response from the meeting’s host:
“I do understand your frustration,” Madonsela says from her chair, “you are a divided community. But it took us forever to get the documents from the premier’s office. I don’t know, maybe we should have done a ‘search and seizure’. But we have been reluctant to do a ‘search and seizure’ on government.”
IV. The size of the fix
So much for Premier Supra Mahumapelo and the provincial administration of North West. In an annexure to the founding affidavit in the case brought by community members against the government, Lonmin and Nthontho in 2015, attorney Hugh Eiser—who’s been fighting for the Bapo’s rights for more than a decade—laid out exactly how Mahumapelo and his predecessor had contravened the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act.
As it turned out, not only had the “D account” never been properly audited, but in March 2014 the North West’s MEC for local government and traditional affairs had given Rangwane Emius Mogale the power to authorise all necessary and routine payments out of the account, although not the power to make additional payments or to act as regent or acting chief. Also, according to Eiser, the North West government had done everything they could to prevent the creation of a legitimate traditional council for the Bapo Ba Mogale.
Which is where Abbey Mafate returns to the fray. In late September 2016, a judge of the North West High Court ordered that Mafate and Tshepo Maakane, another vocal critic of the 2014 Lonmin deal, be allowed back onto the same traditional council to which they’d been elected in January 2014. The two had been suspended in the months leading up to the deal, a decision the judge deemed “irrational and procedurally unfair.” While Mafate and Maakane had been granted access to the council meeting that took place on the day of Madonsela’s second visit to Bapong on 8 October 2016, less than two weeks later they would be served with letters placing them on “special leave” pending unspecified disciplinary charges.
But that wasn’t the half of it. At the council meeting of 19 October 2016, when Mafate and Maakane arrived to take up their seats, they saw at the table across from them none other than Hilton “Didaba” Mokubung—the same man who’d applied a series of panga blows to the head of Kgomotso Morare. Mokubung had been arrested after being named in Morare’s sworn affidavit, but now, it seemed, he was out. Although not a member of the traditional council, he was allowed to speak on its behalf.
“Do not make us angry,” Mokubung allegedly said, when Maakane objected that the council had no power to order the special leave.
In terms of official channels, then, the fix looked as good as in—neither the traditional council, the local police or the government of North West appeared all that interested in the truth of the missing R800 million. As of this writing, the hopes of the Bapo Ba Mogale remain pinned on the Pretoria High Court, where the case is yet to be heard, and the final report of the public protector, which may or may not be forthcoming in December (the wild card is the will of Madonsela’s replacement, Busisiwe Mkhwebane).
And where has Lonmin been in all of this? Absent, mostly. Which is unsurprising when you consider that their deal with Lehlohonolo Nthontho, Rangwane Emius Mogale and Vladimir Mogale includes a lease that grants them almost unfettered access to the Bapo’s ancestral land at a nominal one-off rental of R100. Not that the company has ever been a paragon of corporate social responsibility—the Marikana massacre aside, this is the same company that once mined a secret shaft for three years beneath Bapo Ba Mogale land until, according to Eiser, “its denials could no longer withstand scrutiny.”
For Morare, one of the few locals to ever work for the mine—he was dismissed earlier this year, for reasons he believes were linked to his activism—it’s a battle for another day.
“Let us deal with Lonmin at a later stage,” he told the Daily Maverick. “Let us clean our own room first, and then deal with Lonmin.”
As far as Morare is concerned, his panga wounds are proof that the “cleaning” is imminent. He looks back on the attack as an indication of Nthontho’s desperation, a sign of the beginning of the end. DM
Main photo: Lehlohonolo Nthontho, the CEO of Bapo Ba Mogale Investments (Photo: Sobantu Mzwakali)