A story of land and leaders

2011-12-17 10:16

This week, Royal ­Bafokeng Holdings (RBH) said it would pay $650 million (more than R5.4 billion) to ­increase its holding in two affiliates of banking group FirstRand.

The Bafokeng community in Rustenburg, North West, through RBH, their investment firm, will pay the above figure to increase their 5% stake in RMB Holdings and Rand Merchant Insurance Holdings to 15%.

Discussions with leaders of the Bafokeng kingdom often indicate that the reason they were able to make the investment lie not in the deals struck with Anglo Platinum or ­Implats, nor even that they sit on the Merensky Reef, a Bushveld ­platinum complex. They owe it to the fact that they had the right leadership at the time of discovery of the most significant concentrations of platinum – upon which the country’s secondary and tertiary industries were based – in the world in 19th century South ­Africa, a time of massive land grabs.

The Bafokeng story pivots around the land question and proves in a resources-based economy that the issue of land rights is crucial.

It also reveals that South Africa’s first negotiated transition in the 1990s was incomplete.

Among the chattering urban classes, the land debate is the poor cousin of ­empowerment.

Imagine. It is the dawn of the 19th century in the ­interior of South Africa.

Batlhaping, a Batswana clan is settled in their proud capital of Dithakong on the eye of what are now called the Harts and Vaal ­rivers. It is 1801 – the year they were first visited by the whites.

By the middle of the 1800s, the Batlhaping would supplement their centuries-old trade in ivory, guns, iron, horses and agricultural products with a brisk trade in ­diamonds.

They mined these precious stones along the shores of the ­rivers on their land.

They had legal tenure over the diamond lands.

In fact, such tenure was upheld twice by the Cape High Court.

It was the Tlhaping trade in guns that fuelled the diamond business of their tribal treasury.

According to political historian Martin Legassick, in his 1969 UCLA (University of California in Los Angeles, US) doctoral thesis: “The Tlhaping’s position, between the north and south in the ­pre-colonial African trading world ­accounted for their power and was one of the factors in maintaining the kingdom’s strength.”

Economic historian Kevin ­Shilling points out in his book, The Colonisation of the Southern Tswana, that the Batlhaping ­cornered this business between 1840 and 1850.

By 1869, diamonds accounted for their wealth.

Standard Bank had a branch at Klipdrift, where the tribal treasury of Mothibi held an account.

And according to the bank’s records: “In the absence of ­imperial ­intervention soon, the rightful owners (the Tswana tribes) would lose their land.

“In this respect, the bank was fortunate for most of its early years coincided with an economic boom that lasted from 1865 to 1881.”

A war over this rich land broke out in December 1878.

The British called it “a little ­rebellion”.

It is ­described in papers held at the Bodleian Library in England, as The Tswana Rebellion.

Leonard Thomson in his book, A History of South Africa, writes: “By the century’s end the Southern Tswana had lost most of their land and were the most indigent and ­dependent in Southern Africa.”

Things turned out differently for the Bafokeng, though.

In 1879 at the Bafokeng council led by Kgosi Mokgatle, it was concluded upon analysing the fate of the Tlhaping to increase the timber business that powered the new Kimberley mines.

The outcome was to send men, subject to a tribal tax, to work on the mines and send tax and remittances to the kingdom.

With this income, the Bafokeng bought back every bit of land lost to the whites and held it by legal tenure.

They later hid it under the guise of the cassocks of Lutheran priests who returned the land upon the ­repeal of the 1913 Land Act.

During the landmark Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa) ­negotiations in the 1990s, it was concluded that it was only those who were ­dispossessed as a result of the 1913 Native Land Act who had a claim.

Yet, the most economically ­punitive land loss for black people took place long before the 1910 ­Union of SA.

In any future social dialogue or “economic Codesa ”, the land ­issue will loom large in our understanding of the inequities that plague this nation.

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