AMABHUNGANE

Malema buddy’s mine leaves community reeling

By Micah Reddy for amaBhungane 18 July 2019
Caption
Original Photo: Adriano Mazzotti from Twitter

A mine linked to Adriano Mazzotti, the controversial businessman and associate of Julius Malema, has left a rural Limpopo community reeling from infighting and violent protests. The traditional leadership is accused of hijacking the community trust and striking a deal with the mining company. It’s an all too common case of how permissive mining laws, disputes over customary law and the arrival of mining capital can create a toxic mix.

 
In the heat of a summer afternoon in Limpopo, a motley group of men cling to the shade of a broad tree. They’ve come to demand more money from the mining company they have provided security services to.

The “Thousand Madoda”, as they are known – so called for supposedly accepting R1,000 each to act as the company’s guards – have struck fear in the already divided community of Ga-Mphahlele. There, a clash over the mine has intersected with a historical leadership dispute around the chieftaincy, resulting in violent protests.

Dithabeng Mining, owned by tobacco baron Adriano Mazzotti and his associates, has been accused by some in the community of operating unlawfully, in cahoots with the chief, his mother and a faction of the traditional leadership.

Critics of the mine accuse the chief, Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele, and his mother and predecessor, Ngwanamohube Phatudi-Mphahlele, of staging a power-grab and cutting a deal with Dithabeng’s owners behind the community’s back.

Dithabeng denies this, saying that it has at all times been dealing with what it understands is the legally constituted traditional authority.

Mazzotti, a friend and financial backer of EFF leader Julius Malema, is a controversial figure, with allegations regarding illicit tobacco trading and tax evasion hanging over him.

The Ga-Mphahlele Traditional Authority said in response to questions that “there was a legal process which was followed to the fullest” and that “everything regarding the deal with Dithabeng Mining was done above board”.

Dithabeng denies acting unlawfully in any way. It said via its lawyers, Nicqui Galaktiou Inc: “Dithabeng Mining is a black majority owned and managed company. It holds the community of Mphahlele in high regard and particularly focuses on social investment and environmental conservation within the region.

Dithabeng’s corporate social responsibility and community development are prioritised, as this plays a critical role in the company’s relationship with the community and its employees.”

Dithabeng said other companies had submitted proposals to the community trust that controls the rights: “The Mphahlele Trust required a strategic, financial and operational partner to prospect and mine… Dithabeng was the only company that proposed a 51%- 49% partnership in favour of the community.”

Divided community

A year ago, angry residents of Ga-Mphahlele spilt onto its potholed roads, blocking access and closing down schools in protest against what they said was Dithabeng’s “illegal” chrome mine.

They were furious, accusing Chief Phatudi-Mphahlele – whose proclivities for the high life and flashy motorbikes has not helped endear him to his impoverished community – and his mother of signing away communal land without properly consulting the community.

The open-cast mine sits on the edge of a cluster of dust-blown villages that make up Ga-Mphahlele, part of what used to be the Lebowa Bantustan.

Like many former Bantustans, Ga-Mphahlele has the feel of a place that rarely falls within the state’s gaze – all along its decaying roads are signs of neglect. But beneath its rust red soil are some of the richest mineral deposits in the world, which companies like Dithabeng are determined to tap into.

Dithabeng, which describes itself on its website as “progressive, trailblazing, socially conscious”, maintains that it consulted widely, saying that in February 2017 it held a meeting attended by more than 800 community members where “consensus was reached to sign an agreement in public as a sign of a broader buy-in”.

But a faction of senior figures calling itself the Royal Council claims they were presented with a fait accompli, and that there was no meaningful consultation with the community as a whole.

Interviews with a number of community members support this claim, and suggest that many of those affected believe they were not given a say at all.

It’s like a circus,” said one frustrated resident. “They take us from pillar to post – this one says one thing, that one says another.”

Consent

According to Johan Lorenzen, a lawyer specialising in land tenure and mining, traditional institutions and chiefs have no statutory powers to sign away land rights without community consent. Nevertheless, this happens routinely.

A growing body of legal precedent has upheld the principle that communities that stand to be deprived of land use must first reach a consensus on giving up their land.

In 2018, the Constitutional Court handed down a landmark ruling in favour of the Lesetlheng community in the North West in its battle against a mining company.

The judgment opened with a quote from Frantz Fanon: “For a colonised people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”

Thus, the court ruled, “Strip someone of the source of their livelihood, and you strip them of their dignity too”.

Noting South Africa’s long and bitter history of racialised dispossession, and the constitutional aim to remedy the wounds of the past, the court pointed to the importance of the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act (IPILRA) in ensuring that communities have a right to determine what happens to the land they use.

Another victory against mining capital came the following month, when in November the North Gauteng High Court reaffirmed the importance of IPILRA in relation to mining laws. That case was brought by members of the Xolobeni community in the Eastern Cape who were challenging plans by Australian-linked Transworld Energy and Minerals to dig up land across a 22km stretch of coastline – see amaBhungane’s recent report on Xolobeni here.

Critics of the mine at Ga-Mphahlele claim that Dithabeng could not have reached consensus with community members, because at best only a portion of those affected were given a single chance to air their views at a public meeting.

Lorenzen says it is the norm for communities to be presented with simple rubber-stamping exercises – what passes for consultation is “usually just a single mass meeting called by the traditional council”.

Dithabeng denies that this was the case at Ga-Mphahlele:

Dithabeng Mining started discussions with the Mphahlele Community Development Trust in early 2016, followed by numerous meetings until the community consultation.” An agreement was concluded, followed by a “signing ceremony” at a local school “attended by traditional council members and over 1,200 community members”.

Compensation

Among those angered by the mine are a group of mashemo owners, or field occupiers, who say they have customary rights to the land and have used it for generations for grazing cattle and growing crops.

A letter signed by 83 mashemo owners organised under the Mashemo Owners Association, slams the mine and the traditional authority for striking the agreement in what they say was the absence of the owners, warning the chief that he may not “divest the occupiers of land of the use thereof without first consulting with them”.

The letter also alleges that newly arrived residents have claimed ownership of land, and demands that “those who lay false claims upon the said piece of land must be called upon to identify theirs”.

amaBhungane reached out to several signatories of the letter, who voiced their anger at the alleged failure to have been adequately consulted or compensated.

One, a man in his 60s, told amaBhungane that “we woke up to find this mine. We asked to see the chief, and he told us to make a meeting, but the chief is never available.”

Dithabeng says it negotiated with a different group of 79 owners – the Sefalaolo mashemo owners – and agreed to pay out R11,000 per hectare, some of which has already been paid.

The company says this deal was negotiated “under the marula tree” at the mine in August 2018, some months after the company began mining.

It is unclear what proportion of those actually affected would receive compensation – a matter complicated by the messy and seemingly intractable divisions within the community, and the fact that those who use the land have informal customary rights to it, handed down over generations, but no title deeds.

How does one even know who has a legitimate claim to the land where there are no title deeds?

People just know each other and who owns what,” says Hamilton Mphahlele, one of the Sefalaolo owners who negotiated with Dithabeng.

But there are “chancers” who will try to claim ownership.

He adds that the emergence of a “splinter group” of mashemo owners was enabled by the mine “not playing open cards with the mashemo owners”.

Hamilton also accuses the mine of acting in bad faith: “At first they said they wanted to mine and then they’ll pay, then they kept on shifting the goalposts. At some point when there was a bit of pressure, they paid a few people a portion of the money.”

Neither the company nor the traditional authority were willing to give figures of how much had been paid out. “Dithabeng is not obliged to disclose this information, which is of a confidential nature,” the company said.

But it maintains that it has made all reasonable efforts: “The consultation process in this regard was extensive in that the identification of the field occupiers was a long and timeous process in itself. Dithabeng has spent countless hours attending to the due diligence on the ownership and making sure the that the field occupiers’ families were involved so that all affected parties were consulted and aware of the progress.”

EFF leverage?

There have also been allegations that Mazzotti has leveraged his friendship with Malema – who has been living in Mazzotti’s luxury complex in Hyde Park, Johannesburg – to diffuse opposition to the mine.

In September 2017, community members sent a letter to EFF Limpopo leader Jossey Buthane, accusing the EFF of meddling in the community’s affairs and siding with the mine.

The letter contained allegations that a controversial local EFF leader, Topa Mphahlele, led a group of supporters to the mine to “bully” protesting security workers, demanding they resume work because “Malema will not like the delay in production”. The incident was reported on at the time by African Times.

When contacted by amaBhungane, Mphahlele, who has since left the EFF for the African Transformation Movement (ATM), confirmed that he led a group to protect the mine. “Jossey Buthane is the one who said we must go there and protect the mine. He said that this is our mine, and you must go there and protect our interests.”

He also told amaBhungane that, prior to that, the EFF were called in by community members opposed to the mine to support them at a mass meeting with Dithabeng’s bosses. His account suggests this was probably the February 2017 “consultation” meeting.

Mphahleleclaims that at the meeting Mazzotti called Malema and passed the phone to him, at which point Malema told Mphahleleto leave the meeting and not do anything to frustrate Dithabeng.

amaBhungane spoke to three other former EFF members, all of whom have joined the ATM. Claiming to have been present, they confirmed the story of the meeting and the phone call from Malema. One of them also claimed he was involved with the group subsequently sent to protect the mine.

Buthane denies the allegations, accusing the former EFF members of “playing dirty politics with the EFF”.

You are dealing with disgruntled members who resigned from the EFF,” he told amaBhungane.

Buthane says that although the party received a letter asking for assistance in opposing the mine, EFF members decided not to involve themselves in what they felt was a dispute over the chieftaincy.

Asked if he himself had met Mazzotti, Buthane said, “I don’t remember.” Pressed further, he said, “Look, if I meet Mazzotti, there is nothing wrong with that.”

The EFF also denied meddling. Spokesperson Sixo Gcilishe said: “Mr Malema has never done any of these things. We really have no idea what amaBhungane is talking about.”

In response to questions about the alleged call, Dithabeng’s attorneys told amaBhungane: “Mr Mazzotti nor any of the directors of Dithabeng did not contact Mr Malema nor would they have done so. Mr Mazzotti’s friendship with Mr Malema is not abused for personal gain.”

Satellite image of Dithabeng mine via Google Earth.

Breaking boundaries

A month after the agreement was signed in February 2017, Dithabeng began breaking ground. It was piggybacking on the prospecting rights for chrome, iron and vanadium held by the community trust.

Satellite images from July that year show significant disturbance to the ground – the beginning of a large trench being dug by an excavator, as well as what appear to be a number of lorries.

Community members opposed to the mine claim that Dithabeng was not just prospecting, but secretively mining without a mining permit.

The company’s prospecting works programme – a legally prescribed document that sets out the prospector’s activities – does not provide for any form of bulk prospecting, nor does it allow for open-cast mining and the removal of large volumes of ore.

The only “invasive” activity that the programme mentioned was borehole drilling. For Dithabeng to mine legally, it would require a mining permit, which it only received in November 2017. For several months before that time, Dithabeng appeared to be carting off truckloads of ore, prompting the allegations of illegal mining – a charge that Dithabeng denies.

Dithabeng is prospecting and mining in accordance with a small-scale permit, which it is entitled to do”, says the company. It claims it is the victim of a smear campaign and has hit out at the Royal Council – the senior faction opposed to the mine – which it charges is “disseminating false allegations” and “attempting to extort money from Dithabeng which Dithabeng refuses to pay…

The majority of the Mapahlele community supports Dithabeng, however, there are a few members who have hidden agendas and are spreading unfounded, untrue and baseless allegations.”

In October 2017, after Dithabeng opposed court proceedings brought by the Royal Council, the Polokwane High Court handed down an interim ruling reiterating that the company was bound by “the terms of its prospecting permit and work programme”. The court ruled that the mining agreement would have to be renegotiated by the successful party in the leadership dispute, which was also before court.

The Royal Council has been fighting a two-pronged battle in court. One part, which is still ongoing, aims to challenge the legitimacy of the chief.

The second part focused on the legality of the company’s agreement with the community trust, but it floundered when the court struck the matter from the roll earlier this year on a technicality – lawyers for the Royal Council failed to file practice notes due to what they say was a “miscommunication”.

Outside the courtrooms, the battle over the mine reached a peak in May 2018, when violent protests erupted. Community members called for the mine to be shut down. Their opposition to the mine fused with animosity towards Ngwanamohube Phatudi-Mphahlele, then still the acting chieftainess, and her son Malekutu, who later in the year would succeed her.

The mine was seen as Malekutu’s project.

The traditional authority, now under Malekutu’s leadership, sees it differently: “Protests [were] caused by members of the so-called Royal Council with intention to unseat the acting chieftainess after unsuccessful attempt of [the High Court] review process… the so-called Royal Council staged constant threats to burn the machinery and threaten the workers on site.”

It accuses the Royal Council of pursuing its own mining interests.

Thugs”

Around this time, the Thousand Madoda – the mine’s security “volunteers” – developed a reputation as thugs for hire.

amaBhungane spoke to two Thousand Madoda members, who say the group is made up mostly of unemployed young men, including ex-convicts and gangsters.

The mine began paying them around the time of the May protests – at first cash-in-hand under the mine’s marula tree, later into bank accounts.

They say they were protecting the interests of both Dithabeng and the ruling family, who were accused of having sold out the community.

One member of the group told amaBhungane that it was a representative of Malekutu who first approached them, in early 2018, with the offer to act as security guards.

Both Thousand Madoda sources say they broke up community meetings and assaulted protesters opposed to the mine.

The traditional authority described the claims as “malicious and misleading” and told amaBhungane it had never encouraged anyone to intimidate members of the community.

Although they were never formally employed, Thousand Madoda members apparently received between R1,300 and R2,600 a month each. One of the sources produced a bank statement showing a payment from Dithabeng of R2,600.

The company claims that it hires the men as part of a “volunteer initiative program where Dithabeng gets volunteers from the community to do security work and compensates them”. The company said it did so in order to assist with the dire unemployment situation in the area.

Approximately 84 community volunteers are currently security guards.”

Dismissing claims that it hired thugs as “untrue and malicious”, the company said: “At the end of the year [2018] some volunteers became violent and threatened workers on the mine to pay them a bonus…

In January 2019 these disgruntled ‘volunteers’ came to the mine and started to demand employment, failing which they would burn all the equipment. This resulted in Dithabeng having to lay criminal charges…

These few members of the community that are making these unfounded claims are the instigators that are causing the disturbance in the community.”

It is clear from accounts by ordinary members of the community, and posts on community Facebook pages, that the Thousand Madoda are widely feared.

You mention the Thousand Madoda and I fear for my life,” said one elderly resident. “The community is now divided, and some people are benefitting from all the shenanigans.”

Breakdown of trust

At the heart of the matter is the community trust, which contracted with Dithabeng on the community’s behalf.

The story of the trust goes back to its formation in late 2008. After successive boom years in the platinum industry, a sweeping arch of Limpopo province atop the world’s largest reserves of the mineral was turned into a new mining frontier.

Chrome and platinum mines mushroomed, blighting the rural landscape with their dumps, conveyor belts and industrial headgear, and leaving communities at war with themselves over the spoils.

The Ga-Mphahlele community, eager to get in on the profits to be made, founded the Mphahlele Community Development Trust to administer funds from mining and other commercial activities taking place on the community’s land. The then regent, Ngwanamohube, and four other community members were made trustees.

In the following years potential platinum investors began sniffing out the area, but nothing came of that. Platinum mining requires big capital outlays, while geological constraints make it hard to turn a profit in a market that is fickle and sensitive to international consumer trends. After the global recession of 2008, the market slumped.

In the meantime, the community approached government for the right to prospect for chrome – the barriers to entry for chrome mining in Limpopo being much lower than for platinum.

In June 2015, government signed off on a chrome prospecting right in the name of the community trust, but the community still needed an investor to partner with. In stepped Dithabeng in 2016, with a plan to mine chrome and lofty promises to uplift the community.

On 25 February 2017 the deal with Dithabeng was formally sealed. In a photo from that day, taken at the signing ceremony held on the grounds of a dilapidated local school, a grinning Mazzotti stands alongside his business partner and Dithabeng co-director Gladstone Reuben – both in black suits and sunglasses – with Ngwanamohube Phatudi-Mphahlele standing next to them.

Her son inked the agreement on behalf of the trust.

Missing from the photo is Dithabeng’s third director, Mohammadh Sayed, who is also a director alongside Mazzotti in tobacco company Carnilinx. That company has been in the media spotlight over allegations of tax dodging, while its directors have financially assisted Malema and the EFF.

Dithabeng claims on its website that its “funding model means that new transactions will not be governed by the traditional requirements of big banking institutions which impose very stringent regulations and conservative lending requirements”. It espouses a favoured buzz phrase – “radical economic transformation”.

Dithabeng Mining was set up in 2016, not long before a string of other apparently related companies were formed, all with “Dithabeng” in the name. One of them, Dithabeng Mining Mphahlele, the joint venture with the community, includes Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele as a director.

His directorship was allegedly not divulged to the community, and Phatudi-Mphahlele’s critics claim he stands to benefit personally from the mine, while the community will lose its land and see little, if anything, in return. They allege he hijacked the community trust, which owns the prospecting right and community assets, and that he has dealt with Dithabeng unilaterally, without a community mandate.

The traditional authority denies that Phatudi-Mphahlele hijacked the trust, saying that it was “created by Mphahlele Traditional Council and the chairperson of the trust is the chief of Mphahlele Traditional Council”.

It says he does not derive any financial benefit from any related companies or the directors of Dithabeng.

The company also denies that Phatudi-Mphahlele receives any financial benefit for his directorship in the joint venture company. “Furthermore, none of the members of the royal family hold or receive any financial benefit from Dithabeng or its directors.”

Red flags

Interviews with three current and former trustees and documents that amaBhungane has seen reveal a number of red flags around the trust, beginning with the trust’s resolution to partner with Dithabeng.

That resolution was signed by the acting regent at a meeting chaired by Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele. But trustees amaBhungane spoke to, say they were deliberately left in the dark about the trust’s dealings.

“The deal was signed under the pretext of the Mphahlele community trust taking a stake,” says Hamilton Mphahlele, the mashemo owner who is also one of the original five trustees. But, he says, he was never party to that deal: “The trust I was on just never met.”

He claims new trustees were irregularly appointed by Phatudi-Mphahlele, and that he only found out about it after the fact.

The traditional authority told amaBhungane that the term of office of all former trustees had already lapsed in 2015. Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele had acted in terms of “powers of attorney issued by Ngwanamohube Phatudi-Mphahlele as chairperson of the trust and chairperson of the Traditional Council” when he signed the agreement with Dithabeng and thereafter facilitated the election of new trustees.

But there appears to be nothing in the trust deed that allows for this. Also, the power of attorney and authorisation for Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele to sign an agreement with Dithabeng was on the face of it decided on at a meeting of the traditional council in November 2016, but minutes of the meeting reflect no such decision.

A trust document dated April 2017, two months after the Dithabeng agreement was signed, lists the new board of four trustees.

One of them spoke to amaBhungane, claiming that he too had important information kept from him.

The trustee, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was co-opted by Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele at a meeting of local headmen, and that despite requests for an appointment letter and trust founding documents he was denied these.

He claims he was deprived of any information about the trust’s finances and operations. “The trust was going into a venture and we wanted to understand what sort of a relationship we were getting into … but that information was never made available.”

The source claims that, unbeknown to him, Phatudi-Mphahlele himself was made a trustee, and that the other trustees did not authorise Phatudi-Mphahlele to act on behalf of the trust.

The mining company contested the claim, saying: “Dithabeng has not had sight of the power of attorney, however, is aware that there were numerous meetings that took place with the trustees and at one such meeting the trustees had mandated the chairperson to sign on behalf of the trust.”

Malekutu Phatudi-Mphahlele told amaBhungane: “As far as… the traditional governance structures for the Bakgaga Ba Ga Mphahlele… are concerned, everything regarding the deal with Dithabeng Mining was done above board…

I am therefore not in a position to answer any further questions that are aimed at instituting a parallel process that is supposed to be adjudicated by a competent structure being a court of law.”

Customary chaos

The dispute over the mine has stoked a long-standing battle over customary institutions, which in places like Ga-Mphahlele are more often than not dysfunctional, and open to manipulation by local power-brokers and their external backers.

That dispute can be traced back several decades, and became irreconcilable after the 2001 murder of Ngwanamohube’s elder son and designated heir, Matsobane.

The Royal Council claims that Malekutu , who became chief instead, bound the people of Ga-Mphahlele to an agreement without first seeking its support.

The council is made up of members of the extended royal family and, according to prominent members of the community, is supposed to serve as a deliberative body that consults with the traditional leadership on matters affecting the community. But its members say they were totally excluded from any involvement in the deal. This, they say, is in breach of custom.

They claim that the royal council should have a say in the traditional council – a separate representative body that, in terms of the law, is supposed to be made up of 60% appointed members, with the remaining 40% elected by the community and a third of seats set aside for woman representatives.

Traditional councils are the only collective traditional institutions recognised by the laws that govern traditional leadership – the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act (TLGFA) and its provincial offshoots.

The Act was passed in an effort to regularise the confusing and contested terrain of customary leadership across the country, and ostensibly to bring it in line with the Constitution.

In effect, it meant that the remnants of old Bantustan tribal authorities could become legally-constituted bodies if they held elections and included women.

But, as Aninka Claassens from the Land and Accountability Research Centre at UCT points out, Limpopo has never had elections for traditional councils, and not a single one is constitutionally compliant.

Chiefs often refuse to hold elections or include women, and government does little to ensure chiefs comply and traditional councils are given a semblance of democracy.

It is partly a lack of capacity,” says Claassens. “Government needs to call elections and they say they have a lack of budget.”

But it’s also more political than that. Apartheid and colonialism turned chiefs into functionaries and enforcers of a racist order in which they were accountable upwards, to the white state, but two-and-a-half decades into democracy the coercive power of chiefs has remained politically useful.

A confluence of elite mining interests, a powerful traditional lobby, and a degree of political pragmatism on government’s part, have all helped guarantee chiefly power.

Claassens points out that the TLGFA was part of a bundle of laws, rammed through Parliament just before the 2004 elections, neatly coinciding with the platinum mining boom. These laws strengthened the hand of chiefs in mining deals.

Government and mining companies are perfectly content with the apartheid default, that’s why changing it is not a priority,” says Lorenzen, the land and mining lawyer.

After all, it is far easier for companies to win over a traditional leader than an entire community.

Government’s lack of political will to transform chieftainship is captured in a letter by the Chamber of Mines to a 2017 high-level panel chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe.

Although mining companies are beneficiaries of the status quo, and routinely favour chiefs over the wishes of communities, the letter notes tellingly that, in the view of the chamber “companies are required, or at least face strong recommendations, by the [Department of Mineral Resources] to do their community BEE transactions with the traditional authorities where they exist.

We are conscious that the legitimacy of traditional leaders is disputed by some community members in some jurisdictions, and that this can be the source of negative relationships between mines and adjacent communities.”

Ga-Mphahlele conforms to a pattern, with the royal council accusing the chief of manipulating traditional institutions.

Percy Mathabatha, a prominent community member who is part of the royal council, alleges that Malekutu chooses when to listen to the traditional council, and simply hand-picks local headmen to rubber-stamp his decisions – a sentiment echoed by other community members amaBhungane spoke to.

Hamilton Mphahlele, the former trustee, says that the traditional council is opaque and unaccountable. When he was made secretary of the traditional council, he says he “fought tooth and nail for the community to know about their funds. I wanted receipt books… I even went to the bookkeeper and tried to get the books audited, etc, so the community would know… When I got in as secretary, I was trying to create systems so we could do things properly.”

He says this was all in vain. “At the moment there are things happening behind the scenes.”

As the battle over the mine rages on it has become inseparable from a historical succession dispute it helped revive, in which the royal council has challenged the very legitimacy of Ngwanamohube and Malekutu to rule.

For its part, Dithabeng maintains that it has “at all times dealt with the officially recognised representatives” of the community, namely the traditional council led by the chief.

Ongoing appeals by the royal council, however, have prompted the Limpopo premier’s office to agree to look into the dispute. A letter from March 2019 promises that a task team will examine the lineage of the traditional leadership and that benefits to the royal house would be suspended in the meantime.

Such bitter succession disputes are an all-too-common feature of the former homelands, and half-hearted attempts by government to address these problems have not helped.

There’s barely a chiefdom that doesn’t have a succession dispute,” says historian Peter Delius.

Without functioning traditional councils, there is little hope of resolving disputes democratically, “so it all gets fought out through the courts, and the side that can pay the best lawyers wins”. But the law stretches thinly to the former Bantustans, and the breakdown of traditional institutions provides an opening for modern-day mining barons.

The asymmetries of power, and legal muscle of mining companies, mean it is often impossible for communities to take on companies.

Across the Limpopo platinum and chrome belt there are cases that mirror Ga-Mhphahlele, as more mining companies scramble for resources, from the big old silverbacks of the industry, to small, illegal fly-by-night operations.

The big guys” have established themselves in platinum, says UCT’s Claassens. “Now for a second tier of smaller miners in chrome, coal, and even sand, there’s a quick buck to be made.”

For weeks now the mine has been shuttered, the heavy machinery moved offsite, after members of the Thousand Madoda turned against the company and Malekutu.

After nothing came of meetings with the mine bosses and letters sent to the ruling family demanding payment, the Thousand Madoda began protesting. In January, shortly after amaBhungane’s visit, they clashed with the mine’s official security guards. Several protesters were injured.

In recent days fighting has flared up again between mine security and the Thousand Madoda, and there is no end to the systemic problems.

With government attempting to push through yet more laws in the form of an amendment to the TLGFA and Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill, that will strengthen the power of chiefs over their people, the pattern of the future will likely be one of more contested mining deals and communities in turmoil.

  • In this article, persons are often referred to by their first names. This is to avoid confusion where several individuals have the same surname.

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB Supporter to help us do more. Sign up for our newsletter and WhatsApp alerts to get more.

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