Opinionista John Clarke 12 February 2015

The Robinson/Caruso connection, and the Promise of Justice on Friday

After the delegates to the annual Mining Indaba have all left and after President Zuma has delivered his SONA, The Labia Theatre will host an event rich in historical irony: A book launch for ‘The Promise of Justice’ in a theatre whose stones have a tale of injustice to tell. It is a story that does not flatter President Zuma or the mining industry, but shows that human rights must trump mining rights if we want a better state for the South African nation in the future.

When my daughter was given the details to complete a flyer to send to people inviting them the Cape Town book launch event for my book The Promise of Justice, she thought I was kidding when I told her it was at the Labia Theatre.

“Do you really mean ‘labia’ as in…um… part of the female genitals, Dad?”

My Pietermaritzburg-based publisher found it funny, too. “Next they’ll be holding a Ball in the Scrotum Hall.”

He was unaware that before it became the Labia Theatre, the venue was in fact a ballroom! It was once the Italian Consular ballroom, before being refurbished into a theatre for live performances. It was opened in 1949 by Countess Ida Labia, wife of Count Natale Labia, the Italian Consul General. Countess Labia had donated the money for the extensive refurbishment from her substantial inheritance from her mining mogul father, Sir JB Robinson (1840 to 1929).

For those familiar with the reputation of this infamous ‘Randlord’, they will get the irony of a book being launched there that relates a dramatic tale of yet another unscrupulous mining entrepreneur who in 1996 obtained mining rights, but with scant regard for human rights.

So what is the Robinson/Caruso connection?

First Robinson. Named ‘the financial father of Johannesburg’ according to one writer, Sir JB Robinson accumulated a fortune from gold mining but made few friends. While Chair of the board of Randfontein Estates Gold Mine Ltd, he had secretly purchased land through a private front company for £60,000 which he sold a few weeks later, back to the company that he chaired, for £275,000. A fellow director, Solly Joel (nephew of Barney Barnato) found out about his secret dealings and took him to court for failing to declare his conflict of interests, insisting that he turn over the profit. After a protracted legal battle, the Supreme Court of Appeal eventually ruled against the aging Robinson in 1921, defining the absolute requirement to ensure “a man’s interests do not conflict with his duty”. Robinson was ordered to pay over the illicitly acquired profit of £215,000 plus interest. The happiest parties in the whole process were the legal teams. Legal fees of around £1 million eclipsed the actual amounts at stake.

Mark Caruso fits the same archetype. He is a typical Perth entrepreneur who launched a venture capital company MRC Ltd on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2000 after being promised mining rights for the Xolobeni Mineral Sands deposit on the Pondoland Wild Coast. To help him on his way, the South African Department of Trade and Industries lent him some seed funding totally R18 million which he used to launch a prospectus and attract further investors. After a decade of attempted under-the-radar prospecting which wreaked havoc among the local community and created a storm of controversy, Caruso was finally awarded limited mining rights by the former DG of DMR Sandile Nogxina, whom it so happens is from the area and owns property in Port Edward nearby. Alas, the Minister of Minerals (at the time Buyelwa Sonjica) was forced to suspend the mining rights in September 2008 after a now much-celebrated protest from local residents ably supported by the Royal Family of amaMpondo. The story I tell reveals inter-alia that Sandile Nogxina had also “allowed his interests to conflict with his duty”, by failing to declare his interests as a local resident and property owner who stood to handsomely benefit once the mining commenced.

My book tells that story in all the sordid detail. But the irony of having the launch at a place developed with money from JB Robinson’s estate goes a lot deeper. It is deeply personal and mysterious tale. It so happens that my great-grandparents were, according to the narrative handed down through the generations, swindled out of their family fortune by JB Robinson.

Here’s how the story pieces together. My maternal great-grandparents Michael and Alice O’Connor and their two young children were among the first 3,000 residents to settle in “The Goldfields” (Johannesburg had not yet been named such) to seek their fortune.

On Monday 16th May 1887 he had left Tsitsa Drift in the Nomansland region of the Eastern Cape on the border with a still independent Pondoland, where they ran a trading store. I know this precise date because his older brother, Captain John Thomas O’Connor, former police officer with the Frontier Armed Mounted Police, commander of the Cape Mounted Rifles and veteran of the 1880 Gun War, was by then Colonial Magistrate at Tsolo, details it in his diary, which I found in the Cory Library in Grahamstown.

“This is a most auspicious day and deserves to be noted in a peculiar manner as possessing peculiar events, which may anon be productive of peculiar and most important results to many of us, especially the immediate actors in the present phase of this life.

My dear beloved brother and his wife Alice and their son Jack have actually started purport last en-route to Goldfields!! Yes they are gone. They have left a great void behind, a sense of keen loneliness, and it seems now as though the last remnant of my beloved family, the last relic of my dear old mother, my only and beloved brother has separated from me and left me forever!! O may Almighty God speed and prosper thee, and thine, my beloved brother, and bring thee safe to your distant destination, and prosper ye there and grant in mercy that ere long we may all be reunited again in health and happiness.

Surely these sudden and wondrous changes must show that the world is not our home, and is only our temporary abiding place, and that there is undoubtedly another better world where separations and sorrows never come, and where all will again meet after playing the part assigned to us in this.”

These are sad words, all the more so because, as far as I have been able to establish, the two brothers and their wives and families were never reunited, at least not in health and happiness.

Michael O’Connor secured an early claim but lacking the capital needed to successfully mine the deeper levels of gold seam, JB Robinson bought up his and many other claims “at a fraction of their real worth” according to the family narrative, to create the Randfontein Estates Gold Mine Ltd.

My grandmother was born in 1889 in Luiperdsvlei. Three more children were to be added to the O’Connor family before hostilities commenced between Boer and Brit war in 1899. With six young children (my grandmother was ten) the family left the Transvaal as refugees to the Eastern Cape (imagine that). Unfortunately Captain O’Connor had passed away earlier in the year. For three years, Great-Grandpa and Grandma ran a trading store near Lusikisiki, not far from the Qaukeni Great Place, the residence of the Mpondo Royal Family, that I have visited on countless occasions over the last decade, in service to King Mpondombini Justice Sigcau and his Queen.

After the war ended in 1902 the family returned to Johannesburg, but the dream of making a fortune from their gold claim had long vanished. Michael O’Connor was fortunate to obtain humble employment in the new Transvaal Government civil service. He died in 1915 while serving as the night watchman at the Johannesburg Law Courts. My grandmother never finished school. She married my grandfather Vincent Collingwood and together they brought eleven children into the world, one of whom was my mother Margaret Mary.

When I first became involved as a social worker in the struggles of the amaMpondo in 2007, I was only dimly aware of this family history. Prompted by a startling revelation from my ailing mother on her deathbed that “your grandmother grew up in Pondoland”, I was drawn into an absolutely fascinating narrative. While familiarising myself with the history of amaMpondo to equip myself better for my social work support, I discovered a fascinating intertwining with my own family history in the Eastern Cape 19th Century frontier history.

When I related the story of my hapless ancestors to one of the community leaders, Jabulani Mboyisa (since deceased sadly) a very strange awareness dawned to propel me to an ever-deeper quest for understanding the History (His Story) and Mystery (My Story). Jabulani was vehemently determined to stop Caruso from mining his ancestral lands. Jabulani’s father had been active in the Pondo Uprising of 1960 and imparted to his son the same passionate sense of land identity and ancestor reverence. Jabulani was a well-respected Sangoma.

“Well that explains why you are here, John,” Jabulani said without a shadow of doubt or hesitation. “My ancestors and your ancestors have both suffered exploitation by mining people. Our ancestors have decided you will work with us to stop this mining thing.”

Nowhere in my social work textbooks is there any guidance on how to handle such a process of professional contracting.

That was in 2007, on the eve of a visit by the SA Human Rights Commission to investigate the allegations of human rights violations that Jabulani had contracted me to put to the commission on behalf of the Amadiba Community.

Four years later the mining rights were revoked, establishing an irrevocable truth. Given that environmental rights are entrenched in the Bill of Rights detailed in the Constitution, human rights must trump mining rights.

The Robinson/Caruso connection will be further explained (fittingly) on Friday.

The Promise of Justice launch is scheduled to start at 10am, at the Labia Theatre with a special screening of the documentary film The Shore Break, which features many of the characters in The Promise of Justice, directed by Ryley Grunenwald and co-produced by Ryley and Odette Grunenwald. You can see more here. DM

The screening of Shore Break is a private screening and is unfortunately not open to the public.

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