To infinity and beyond
21 July 2017 10:42 (South Africa)
South Africa

What’s mine is mine: How warlordism came to South Africa

  • Kevin Bloom
    KevinBloomBW
    Kevin Bloom

    Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

  • South Africa
Photo: Workers at Lonmin Rowland Shaft. (Greg Marinovich)

At the end of January, with hardly anybody noticing, public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane failed to deliver on a promise made by her predecessor Thuli Madonsela to a mining community of 40,000 (mostly unemployed) souls. The implication? Not only has warlordism officially seeped down from the central regions of our continent to take hold within our own national borders, we seem to have invented a whole new version of it—F#@% Y*& Warlordism. By KEVIN BLOOM.

Warlordism. Ten years ago, when the world was a very different place, a professor of politics at Columbia University in New York published a groundbreaking paper on the phenomenon in the journal International Security. As was typical of that more innocent time, it was the sort of paper that drew an implicit distinction between broken states like Somalia and Afghanistan, being “them”, and functioning states like the USA and South Africa, being “us”. It was a thoughtful paper, a caring paper, a paper filled with understanding and compassion for the inhabitants of a realm in dire need of “our” help (help, of course, which was forthcoming in the paper’s conclusion). It was also, although the author could never have guessed it, a paper of profound expository value for the coming Trumpocene age.

“Similarly, in both Somalia and Afghanistan warlordism is a new phenomenon,” the good professor wrote. “Civil war in both countries gave men who controlled weapons and militias the power to subvert and displace traditional clan or tribal elder authority and seize control over land.”

And so, allowing the Americans to hyperventilate over what constitutes civil war and the breakdown of traditional authority in their own benighted motherland, let’s bring the above statement back home to South Africa circa 2017, where warlordism of the sort practiced in Somalia and Afghanistan gets less exotic by the day, and where “control over land” is an issue as yet uncomplicated by mortgage-backed securities and lobby groups for Big Food. Here, where the land is still a thing that the majority live “off” instead of “on”; here, where the majority can (almost certainly) spot the difference between a warlord and a fat Messiah...

What did this majority intuit as the true character, for instance, of Mr Lehlohonolo Nthontho, the man who rode into the platinum belt town of Bapong in July 2014, promising justice and redress and a share—at long last!—in the formidable wealth of the mine? If the visit last October of former public protector Thuli Madonsela was any indication, there was little question in the townspeople’s minds that Nthontho was a warlord of the first rank. As the Daily Maverick reported at the time, not only had Nthonho (whose South African citizenship remains in question) co-opted the acting regent of the Bapo Ba Mogale into granting him ultimate power over the community’s financial fate, he had also co-opted about 1,200 of the locals into working as his private thugs. But there was something else, something nastier, something that suggested a kinship with the species of warlordism practiced in the cobalt fields of the eastern DRC: Nthontho, as per this article published by the Daily Maverick in December 2016, appeared to be operating with the assistance of the North West provincial government and the mining conglomerate Lonmin PLC.

It was, quite clearly, a job for Madame Madonsela—and in the week that she vacated her post, Madame Madonsela promised the Bapo Ba Mogale that her replacement, Madame Busi Mkhwebane, would make good on the hundreds of hours of investigative work that the public protector’s office had already dedicated to the case. The final report on the missing R800 million and the culpability of the powers-that-be, Madonsela said, would be forthcoming in December 2016. Failing that, she added, and at the absolute bloody latest, the community would have their report by the end of January 2017.

If you feel so inclined, please do take a look at your watch. The time, it will tell you, is more than a week past the date when we could comfort ourselves that warlordism would never spill down from the restive central regions of our continent to take hold within our own national borders. With the deadline receding at warp-speed into history and only the chirping of crickets from Mkhwebane’s office, we now know that the public protector has flipped the ultimate bird at the 40,000-strong Bapo Ba Mogale community—a bird-flipping that says, “We don’t care that R800 million was stolen from your community account, we don’t care that the North West provincial government was supposed to be looking after that money for you, we don’t care that almost none of you are employed…

In the astonishing context, then, of the R20,000-per-ticket Mining Indaba happening in Cape Town this week—an extractive industries cheer-a-thon headlined by a list of speakers including mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane and Lonmin CEO Ben Magara—we in South Africa might want to ask ourselves a question: have we just introduced a whole new species of warlordism to the world? It would appear, given how Magara’s spiel to punters would need to rest upon (if not acknowledge) the role in Lonmin’s strategy of panga-wielding militiamen, that the answer is, “Yes indeed!” At the Daily Maverick, for clarity’s sake, we were thinking of calling this new species “Fuck You Warlordism”… until it dawned on us that to do so would be redundant, a needless repetition of an implicit and obvious fact. So let’s just call it the New Warlordism, and let’s see what the activists in the Bapo Ba Mogale community can teach us about its workings.

The New Warlordism—herewith a copy of the unanswered letter sent by Mr Abbey Mafate, an illegally suspended member of the Bapo Ba Mogale traditional council and a young man who has more than once had to hide himself from Nthontho’s goons, to the public protector’s office on 20 January 2017:

We draw your attention specifically to items 1.1 and 1.2, where the role of the North West government in siphoning off the community’s mining royalties is addressed, and to item 1.3, where it is suggested that the royalties of other mining communities in the province have disappeared down the same bottomless hole. On this last point, although the evidence has yet to be gathered and checked, the Daily Maverick has fielded a number of calls from community activists in the areas surrounding Bapong that would suggest the looting from the “D” account runs well into the hundreds of millions. These communities, it seems, have their own (albeit less powerful) versions of Nthontho—which they would need to, considering that this is how warlordism as a political system rolls.

The implications for the nation-state nominally referred to as the Republic of South Africa are clear. As Bapo activist Kgomotso Morare, who sustained a panga blow to the head in late September 2016, told the Daily Maverick in early February 2017: “Since I’ve opened my case [with the local branch of the South African Police Service], there’s never been any SMS to notify me of my case number. This means it was never registered. It was an attempted murder case, according to my injuries. Can you imagine?”

Watch: Kgomotso Morare addresses Public Protector Thuli Madonsela (Video: Sobantu Mzwakali)

Well, can we? In the first article of this series, the Daily Maverick established that there was good reason for Morare to distrust the local branch of SAPS—the circumstantial evidence pointed to the fact that they were (are) in cahoots with the Nthontho-Lonmin-North West government nexus. What this means, if true, is that we are in territory here way beyond the classic model of warlordism, where the state has lost its monopoly over violence, and where power has moved from the centre to the periphery. In South Africa circa 2017, we appear to have a situation in which state power is warlord power, the centre is the periphery, and everyone not in government or on a mining company board (or in possession of a panga) can get... well, fucked.

On second thoughts, with a nod to the growing list of former First World nations succumbing to slightly different versions of the phenomenon, Fuck You Warlordism may be as apposite as it gets. DM

Read more in the series:

  • “What’s mine is mine: How the Bapo Ba Mogale got robbed of R800,000 million”, in Daily Maverick
  • “What’s mine is mine: Lonmin and the dangerous art of intimidation”, in Daily Maverick.

Photo: Workers at Lonmin Rowland Shaft. (Greg Marinovich)

  • Kevin Bloom
    KevinBloomBW
    Kevin Bloom

    Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

  • South Africa

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