Limpopo mining: Dream fields lie fallow under dust

Prospecting for one of the world's largest platinum mines has already taken farming land from a Limpopo community.

Their future is uncertain and people are getting angrier about living in limbo

In 1994, most South Africans opened the gates to freedom. In that year, Frank Mofokeng* lost his ancestral plot and his only source of income.

One morning he woke up and walked the few kilometres to the field he had farmed for decades and found a fence had been built around it. Security guards told him to go away. The community's farmlands had become a slimes dam for one of the world's biggest platinum mines.

"I was born in the 1940s and my parents were farming on this land. I also farmed the land and it fed my family. We had enough to sell to pay for the children to go to school. Now we struggle."

This is the tale of people in towns along the booming platinum belt in Limpopo. Their nearest town is Mokopane, just south of the provincial capital Polokwane.

Today the topsoil, and everything else, is covered with the white dust that blows off the mine. But this is an area with rich earth, where Mofokeng could grow anything from maize and morogo (wild spinach)to beans. Now the villagers have nowhere to farm.

Driving through parts of the old fields that are still open, he points to where others used to farm. Now the yellow grass is tall and bushveld trees have taken over. In return for their land, the farmers were each offered R300 in a brown envelope by what he called the "consultants".

Becoming unified
"I threw it back at them. How can you give people so little for land that used to feed them and their ­families?"

Mofokeng is now an old man and leans forward in his seat to look at the land, his strong but worn hands pointing as he describes landmarks.

The community was silent for two decades, he says. But then the youth decided they had had enough of not having jobs or fields to farm, as their forefathers had done. They have had mass marches to the Anglo American mine, demanding that it does more for the community it straddles.

"We are becoming unified now so we can face the mine and the king together," says Mofokeng.

But they are still afraid. People have jobs to lose and the mine is the only real employer. He also says people – he does not know where they come from – intimidate activists. This is borne out when he phones later and asks that his photograph not be used. "My family is worried that people will see me and my home and do something."

The mine pays rent to King Kgalakwena II – in 1992 his father agreed to let the mine use the land. He did not tell his subjects what had been agreed, so they heard the news through rumours and saw the erection of the fences that would bar their access. Locals can point into the ­distance in different directions to where they say the king has homes. A search for him proves fruitless. He is away and nobody can supply his contact details.

For this community, it is too late to stop the mining, but 20km down the road a new mine is being met with distrust by its surrounding communities. They cite the case of their neighbours and do not want to end up with nothing in return for their arable land. They welcome anyone who will listen to their story. Seeing the approaching visitors, Margaret Magabo goes inside her beautifully painted home and fetches some plastic chairs. After warm greetings and handshakes, everyone sits in a rough circle in her yard. The language spoken is Sepedi – Mokopane is 180km from Botswana.

People going hungry
"The mining committee took me to my field and told me to sign a document giving my land to the mine," she says. They promised to give her R5 250 a year in compensation.

"When I said I did not want to sign, they said my grant would be taken from me."

Her sits alongside the tar road, next to adjoining farmland on the other three sides. The plot she had used for four decades is 500m from her house, in the middle of what is now overgrown bushveld. Drilling rigs dot the horizon and the tall Waterberg mountain range looms in the background.

"I could grow alles [everything], but that stopped in May 2011." She pauses and looks in the direction of the fields. A firm look settles on her face. "What can you do with R5 250? That field gave us everything; now people go hungry."

The fields sit on top of one of the world's greatest platinum reserves. Platreef – 90% owned by Canadian company Ivanplats – has been prospecting in the area since 2000. In July, it applied for a mining rights.

The planned mining area will affect eight communities and about 15 000 people. Underground and open-pit options are being discussed. The technical report says that one of the most significant risks will pertain to "any requirement for resettlement of occupants of townships on the three farms".

Although Magabo gets R5 250 a year to replace her only source of nutrition, the mine set up committees to consult the community. Each village was supposed to have one, consisting of 12 members with a monthly stipend of R10 000 for each committee. The local chiefs also got a monthly stipend of R3 000. Community members claim these committees were made up of people who worked for the mine, and of people in the traditional leadership structures. "How can people who are being paid by the mine be honest with us and not side with their employer?" asks Masenya Syilvester, a resident of Mzombana, one of the affected communities.

The committees would approach residents to get them to sign over their land. In Refilwe Mphahlele's case, she had no choice.

Increasingly angry
"The mining committee came to us in the night and said we should take money to allow for the drilling. If we did not, they threatened us that the drilling would happen anyway," she says. "They came back and said if we did not sign they would vandalise our houses. They burnt other houses, so I said yes."

In return for a week's drilling, she was paid R3 000. She gets increasingly angry as she talks about the pipe that was used for exploratory drilling that has been left stuck in the ground of her yard.

Mphahlele says a "black liquid" leaked out of the base of the pipe for two years and flooded her yard.

The threats against her were backed up by what has become known as the "Platreef army". These were people employed in the community by the mine as "security", says David Marume, the spokesperson for the Mokopane Interested and Affected Community Committee.

They did not work near the mine and rather spent their time in the communities, threatening people who spoke out about the mining.

"They were clever because this divided the community. People had jobs and looked out for their employer and made their families keep quiet. This mine knows what it is doing," Marume says while rummaging through a briefcase of documents he has collected about the mine. "They use us and use money to turn people against each other."

The Mokopane committee was formed by the community as a democratic forum for interaction with the mine. In the past they say decisions were made on their behalf by traditional leaders, who excluded them from meetings. Each village elects five people and they take any decisions the committee makes back to their villages to vote on. "We wanted to give a proper democratic platform for the community," he says.

Proper consultation
At first they were ignored, but last year they convinced the provincial department of mineral resources to attend a discussion with the community and the mine. During this meeting, the department said it had done its own investigations and concluded that proper consultation had not been carried out.

It issued a section 93 notice, ceasing all Platreef operations until the issues of proper public consultation had been dealt with. Drilling rigs had to be removed in February and the mining committees had to be disbanded. Public consultation would be moved to neutral areas such as schools so people did not feel intimidated, the minutes say.

Jeremy Michaels, spokesperson for Platreef, says they have entered into formal memorandums of understanding with "a host of community organisations" that include the Mokopane committee. "Our host communities are extremely important stakeholders in this project and so have gone to great lengths to engage the community at large."

He says the mine will create about 10 000 jobs over the course of construction and operation, and will bring billions into the local economy.

"We have been engaging all the parties for a long time." This was why section 93 had been lifted and why 11 drilling rigs were back in the fields, he says. Because of the problems of relocating people, the mine will all be underground, he says.

The community members that Mail & Guardian talked to say they do not know what is happening with their land. The Mokopane community committee has approached Lawyers for Human Rights to lodge formal requests for all the information and correspondence around the project. "We want to know what is being planned for our community," says Marume. Most people still think the mine will be an open-cast one, like the one up the road.

With such slow progress, every group discussion is drawn between the more militant people who talk of "another Marikana" if the mining goes ahead, and those who advise the slow legal route.

Little patience
"They need a social licence to use our land and if they do not have that they will not operate," says Syilvester. Much younger than the residents running the Mokopane committee, his sentences are shorter and he seems to have little patience.

Mzombana, the village where he lives, is a community of young people who have had to move because there was no space left in the surrounding villages. They are impatient and politically active. New political party Agang came here to campaign because they have had no service delivery. It is fertile ground for both crops and politicians.

The communities are not opposed to mining, but they want information and they want to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.

The worst-case scenario is that they lose their land and source of income before being moved to the townships closer to Mokopane. "This is our nightmare. They don't tell us anything so we don't know if we will be relocated. Nobody knows anything," says Marume.

When it announced that it had applied for a mining licence in June, Robert Friedland, Ivanplat's executive chairperson, said the mining would be underground. It would also create jobs and "contribute significantly to the socioeconomic development of our host communities".

None of this has been communicated and, with so much uncertainty, the community is already suffering for what they have beneath their feet. Brand Nthako, a community representative, says the 21km platinum seam is a curse. "I don't know why God decided to put platinum just under our very arable land."

*Not his real name