The Bafokeng: Getting royalty right

2012-11-13 11:20

There are no topless pictures. No naked photos in Las Vegas, no embarrassing affairs, and no tearful TV tell-alls.

In fact, the only thing the Bafokeng royal family appear to have in common with their paparazzi-dogged British counterparts is a love for polo.

Queen Mother Semane Molotlegi hosted her second annual Charity Polo Cup in September, the day before Heritage Day.

The event, held at the elegant five-star Royal Marang Hotel at the Bafokeng Sports Palace – where the England football team were based during the 2010 Fifa World Cup – was organised by her youngest daughter, Princess Tirelo.

I met the princess two weeks before the event at the offices of Royal Bafokeng Holdings (RBH) in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, where she is based.

The investment company was established in 2006 by her brother, Kgosi Leruo, to diversify his 300 000-strong nation’s assets so that they are not overly dependent on income from the platinum mines operating on their land.

Through its subsidiary, Royal Bafokeng Platinum Holdings, RBH owns a 57% stake in the Bafokeng Rasimone platinum mine – the nation’s first – and will soon be bringing another into production.

Dressed immaculately in a black pants suit, scarf elegantly knotted around her neck, the former head girl of exclusive private KwaZulu-Natal boarding school The Wykeham Collegiate explains that being royal in Africa is very different from being royal in Europe.

‘I think it’s one of those roles that’s about giving back; it’s not so much about the glitz and glam. For us it isn’t like the situation of Catherine (Duchess of Cambridge) who is really all over the place. I would hate to be captured every moment of my life.’

Not just a princess
Princess Tirelo is no ordinary event planner; she trained at hotel school in Switzerland. She has other unusual skills, too.

She obtained her helicopter pilot’s licence in 2003, the first woman in South Africa to do so, ‘so they say’.

(Inspiration came by way of 80s TV show Airwolf, which she adored at boarding school, where the girls had posters of hunky star Jan-Michael Vincent on their dorm walls.)

‘Fixed wings are boring,’ she declares.

‘It’s such an amazing feeling to fly a helicopter.’

Her brother, the king, also has an unusual skills set. Besides being a plane pilot and architect, he is also an accomplished pianist.

Kgosi Leruo sits at the helm of Royal Bafokeng Resources, which he established nine years ago to manage and expand on his nation’s mining interests, as well as the Royal Bafokeng Economic Board, to encourage entrepreneurship among his people.

Another of his projects, Royal Bafokeng Finance, develops holdings for the nation that do not involve mining.

No wonder the kgosi – who is in his 40s and unmarried, despite his dashing looks and toned physique honed by regular workouts at the Sports Palace’s high-performance centre – has no time to engage in behaviour with scandal potential.

Playing the game

The polo tournament is another example of the Bafokeng’s ability to get royalty right. The tournament is the first in the country to showcase action polo, a shorter, faster version of the game.

The pitch used is less than half the size and teams have three riders instead of four, who use their mallets to smash luminous orange inflated balls that (mercifully) don’t fly as fast.

Tickets to this year’s match didn’t come cheap, at R15 000 a table.

And being family didn’t entitle anyone to a discount. Thabo Mokgatle, one of the king’s cousins, bought two tables.

He owns EK Holdings, a company with interests in software development for the mining industry, and research and development patents.

He is a member of the Bafokeng’s lekgotla la kgosing, the king’s advisory body, and his duties involve consulting with leaders of the Bafokeng’s 29 villages, which he does every second Sunday.

He looks exhausted. ‘It is our responsibility to serve the Bafokeng nation. We are the workers,’ he says.

With the Bafokeng earning hundreds of millions of rands a year from mining royalties, I ask why there is no whiff of scandal.

‘Everything is properly structured – there is no room for error. We are audited by  PricewaterhouseCoopers,’ he says.

MmeMogolo, as the Queen Mother is affectionately known, nominated three charities to benefit from her Polo Cup: the Girl Guides Association of South Africa, which she believes imparts valuable life skills to young girls; the Cancer Association of Rustenburg; and the Thuto Thebe Educational Fund, started by her eldest son, the late Kgosi Lebone II. He ruled from 1995 to 2000 before he tragically died of heart failure aged just 35.

School rules
‘My mom was making us laugh yesterday after an interview about the Thuto Thebe trust,’ says Princess Tirelo.

‘She said it was in memory of her two boyfriends – her husband and her late son – because both of them were very passionate about education and getting young children schooled.’

The princess is already agonising over a suitable school for her two sons, aged four and two.

‘The trust looks at improving schools, not just in the Bafokeng area but the surrounding areas, too, helping kids who can’t afford to go to school. And then it also looks at teachers and principals and how to improve their skills.’

Another of Kgosi Leruo’s many projects is the Royal Bafokeng Institute, that administers more than 40 schools on the nation’s land – many of which were built by the people.

Run by Ian McLachlan, the former headmaster of top Johannesburg private school St Stithians, the institute helps improve the facilities and quality of teaching.

Staff at the Bafokeng’s own private school, Lebone II College – that received an award last month for sustainable architecture – train and mentor the teachers and principals of local government schools.

Talented Bafokeng children can receive bursaries to study there – its curriculum is rich and varied, spanning everything from science and sport to drama and music.

Children are trained to play a variety of instruments such as the violin, saxophone and marimba.

Paying it forward

Getting royalty right has not just been a recent characteristic of the Bafokeng, however.

The people have been on their land for the past 800 years, and it was Kgosi Leruo’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kgosi Mokgatle, who set his people on the path to wealth in the late 1800s.

‘When my husband (Kgosi Edward) came to the throne, the contract he entered into with the mining companies was better than the one before, which brought in better royalties,’ says Queen Mother Semane.

‘It’s through those royalties that he was able to build the roads and the schools. His eldest son (the late Lebone II) acquired shares in the mines and served on the board. His brother (current king Leruo) has gone further by acquiring the mine – the Bafokeng now own a mine.’

It’s this continuity that makes Princess Tirelo especially proud of her family.

‘The whole vision has come from my great-grandfathers, from my dad to my late brother to the current king. We have all kept that vision alive, and it’s continuing, to build a community and make a difference for the people,’ she says.

Ever diplomatic, neither the Queen Mother nor Princess Tirelo wanted to discuss what happened at Lonmin’s Karee mine in Marikana, where 46 miners, police officers, security guards and union leaders were killed during the wildcat strike in August and September.

Five hundred workers at the Bafokeng Rasimone platinum mine went on strike, too, but they returned to work three days later.

It was decided that grievances would be dealt with, but the existing three-year wage deal would stick; a s

ubsequent strike by some workers in September ended in their dismissal.

Although she may not have been embroiled in any personal scandal, Princess Tirelo reveals that she, like the rest of us, keeps tabs on those of blue blood around the world.

 ‘It’s just not like the European royalty,’ she says of her family, before we share a giggle about paparazzi pics of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands hiding in her garden, puffing on a cigarette.

‘I read junk, hey. There was a picture Queen Beatrix in Hello!, my favourite magazine. I just have to get it every week.’

The nation’s history
The Bafokeng have been on their land in what is now Phokeng in the North West for the past 800 years.

However, it was Kgosi Leruo’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Kgosi Mokgatle who set his people on the path to wealth in the late 1800s.

The Boers, who had established the South African Republic, had claimed vast tracts of Bafokeng land as their own by right of conquest after the Great Trek and battles with breakaway Zulu leader Mzilikazi.

So Kgosi Mokgatle – who was a friend of Boer leader and Transvaal president Paul Kruger – set about buying back much of their 2 000km2 of land.

To do so he sent regiments of young Bafokeng men to work on the mines in Kimberley after diamonds were discovered there in 1869, with orders to repatriate their earnings.

However, the Boer parliament had ruled that Africans were not allowed to buy land, forcing Kgosi Mokgatle to ask Lutheran missionaries to buy it on his people’s behalf and hold it in trust for them.

Nearly a century later in 1956, Kgosi Leruo’s father, Kgosi Edward Patrick Lebone Molotlegi, ascended the throne at the dawn of another dark era for his people: the Bophuthatswana bantustan established in 1961.

Queen Mother Semane married into the Bafokeng royal house two years after that.

No stranger to royalty, her father became the regent king of Botswana’s Bamangwato people in 1926 because his nephew, Seretse Khama, was just five years old when his father died. Khama later became his country’s first president.

The couple found themselves at the centre of a political storm when Lucas Mangope became president of Bophuthatswana in 1977. The two men clashed.

‘My husband was not a yes-man,’ she says. ‘Mangope, I think, couldn’t manipulate him, and it was about the platinum, about the finances that the government wanted to control.’

But matters became worse after the 1988 coup led by Rocky Malebane-Metsing, which Mangope accused Kgosi Edward of backing.

The couple were then subjected to a campaign of intimidation and regular night-time police raids on their home.

With his health failing, Kgosi Edward went into exile in Botswana, and Mangope then placed his brother, Mokgwaro, on the throne.

After Mangope’s government refused to renew her permanent residency, Queen Mother Semane went into exile in Johannesburg to be closer to her children, the youngest of whom were still at school in KwaZulu-Natal.

She lived in a flat in Yeoville with her eldest son, who was working for mining house Impala Platinum. Her children, however, longed for home and visited Bafokeng land during school holidays.

‘Just across the road from where we lived was a Roman Catholic mission and it was in South Africa then,’ she remembers.

‘The bishop gave me refuge and I would stay there and sneak home at night. Home is home. They wanted to be home.’

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