Wed, Oct 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Protests test tribal authority on South Africa’s platinum belt

Tribal leaders have long acted as intermediaries between mining companies and the people living on resource-rich lands, but locals have begun pushing against these arrangements, risking miners’ profits

By Ed Stoddard  /  Reuters, MOGALAKWENA, South Africa

Illustration: Mountain people

A new power struggle is unfolding in South Africa’s old homelands between global mining giants, traditional leaders and an impoverished rural populace.

Parts of an industry long used to labor unrest are now contending with community protests that have cut production of the country’s largest mineral export earner, platinum, and might shut some operations down altogether.

At the heart of the conflict are tribal leaders who have royal titles and feudal-style control over the homelands, poor rural areas designated to South Africa’s black majority by its former white minority rulers during apartheid.

Tribal leaders are also key allies of South African President Jacob Zuma, whose political base has become increasingly rural, and his African National Congress (ANC) party has drafted a law that would cement their control.

However, with protests spreading across the homelands, the communities, mining companies and some within the ANC itself are moving to change what they see as an anachronistic system.

The traditional leaders have acted as intermediaries with companies, which have discovered chrome and coal as well as platinum in the homelands and hope to find shale gas.

Many locals say they are seeing none of the proceeds.

“If they don’t give us that 175 million rand [US$13 million], we are going to shut down the mine,” said Chippa Langa, a leader of the community around the Mogalakwena platinum mine, referring to a community fund set up by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats).

To avoid such an outcome, a leading human rights lawyer is negotiating with the local royal house to allow community representatives more control over the fund.

“We are renegotiating the agreement to make it more accountable,” said attorney Richard Spoor, whose work has included spearheading a class-action suit against gold producers over the fatal lung disease silicosis which miners contract.

It is a plan that, if copied elsewhere, would dilute the power of the tribal leaders and could do the same to the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

However, Spoor says he and his legal team, who are acting for the communities rather than the mine, are not undermining tradition.

“Our view is that this more democratic model is far more aligned with traditional law and custom. We don’t regard the current very authoritarian top-down style of chieftanship as consistent with the traditional institution,” Spoor said.

Zolani Mkiva, head of presidency at Contralesa, the umbrella group for South Africa’s traditional leaders, agreed that the African way is bottom-up, but said what he called isolated cases involving some mining deals were giving the chiefs a bad name.

“They tend to attract attention and create an impression that this represents the African way of leadership,” he said.

Chris Griffith, chief executive of Amplats, a unit of Anglo American, said the company was fully behind the restructuring of the community trust and was applying the lessons learned to other deals.

“What we are trying to do is get away from some of the previous structures where we felt obliged to pay the money over to the kgoshi [chief],” Griffiths told reporters, mentioning a new-style deal on a chrome project in February.

At that project, there have been no protests so far.

Discontent has not been confined to Mogalakwena, the world’s largest open-pit platinum mine, where Amplats says protests two years ago cost it 8,600 ounces of its annual 200,000-plus ounces of production.

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