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No chief ever bought a piece of land

- Wits University

Africa Month: Research by Sonwabile Mnwana and Gavin Capps is expected to cause a major upset in the way mines negotiate land rights with communities.

They are both from the Society, Work and Development Institute (Swop) at Wits. The research, titled: No chief ever bought a piece of land: Struggles over property, community and mining in the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela Traditional Authority Area, details the abuse of traditional power by chiefs, while the people from their communities struggle in poverty.

During the two-year project, Mnwana studied the relationships between three villages in the Bakgatla area and their Chief, Kgosi Nyalala Pilane.

Bakgatla lies in the North West Province, near the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve, where some of the world’s largest platinum producers such as Anglo American Platinum Limited, Impala Platinum Holdings Limited and Lonmin Plc compete for space with rural communities.

According to the research, under the current model, mining houses, the Chief and government collude, giving mining houses quick and easy access to the land.

The Chief as the traditional leader has the right to negotiate land deals – and receive mining royalties – on behalf of his community. By doing this, Pilane has amassed a bewildering variety of companies on which he sits as a Director, to create a Bakgatla business empire, estimated to be worth R15 billion.

Bakgatla’s three scattered villages, however, are still markedly poor and overcrowded.

“The roads, schools and health facilities are still in a state of neglect,” says Mnwana.

However, in the “principal village” of Moruleng, multi-million rand infrastructural projects sprung up almost overnight.

“The Tribal Administration had gained a gleaming new office and cultural centre, the Moruleng Soccer Stadium was completed and a giant gleaming shopping mall had risen from the dust,” he adds.

Ten kilometres to the northwest, the Pilanesberg Platinum Mines open pit operation has grown almost three times in size since 2009.

“Elsewhere, tracts of village land had been fenced off for the new mining projects that hold the promise of mega-profits for distant investors and further prestigious developments in the tribal ‘capital’,” says Mnwana.

The mining operations have profoundly altered the physical landscape and overwhelmed much of what used to be the villagers’ agricultural land. Mnwana found that the villagers strongly contest the Chief’s right to speak and make deals for them, as he never owned the land in the first place.

This causes fragmentation of the community.

“Rather than leading to the development of the mine-hosting villages investigated in this study, it has delivered land alienation, the radically unequal distribution of mining benefits and a near-universal perception of chiefly corruption,” says Mnwana.

Since the report was published in 2015, it has gained much interest. “Everybody wanted a copy,” says the Institute’s Director, Professor Karl von Holdt.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Institute, which started as the Sociological Work Programme at Wits, became an Institute eight years ago.

The Institute’s main focus is to study the social impacts on nature, climate and democracy.