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[Webinar] Mining in Lebowa: The Pre-history of the Platinum Boom

The History Workshop and the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) cordially invite you to a webinar presented by Dr Laura Phillips.

"Mining in Lebowa: The Pre-history of the Platinum Boom" By Dr Laura Phillips

Wednesday 1 July | Meeting opens 13h00 | Starts at 13h15



In the late 1990s, AngloPlatinum and the Department of Minerals and Energy met behind closed doors for a series of confidential negotiations. In the lead up to the passing of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), Anglo was under pressure to reform its business practices for the new political context. In particular, the Department wanted Anglo to release some of its mineral rights to make space for new, black entrants into the mining sector. But Anglo was in a strong position. Having secured mineral rights for some of the richest platinum reserves in the Lebowa Bantustan in the late 1980s, it had significant leverage in negotiations with the Department. By the time the MPRDA was passed, Anglo retained twelve out of the original twenty-four mineral rights leases it had held, including rights over part of the much sought after platinum reef near Mokopane (formerly called Potgietersrus). But little known is about how Anglo secured such vast and valuable mineral rights. In fact, there was a deliberate attempt to keep this information secret. In this paper, I outline the deals that allowed Anglo to expand its influence over the platinum reserves in the former Lebowa and argue that Anglo (and its predecessor companies) were able to exploit the complex and changing mineral and property rights regime in Lebowa to their benefit. By examining the growing power of the Lebowa ‘state’ to intervene in the allocation of mineral rights, I show that Anglo was equally adept at responding to very local conditions on the ground and the global platinum market. 

*Dr Laura Phillips is a postdoctoral fellow at the History Workshop. Her PhD thesis examined the history of class formation in Limpopo from the 1970s to the post-apartheid period. She has written on the history of the Bantustans, labour migration and gender. This research project was supported in part by the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP). The presentation is available upon request.


Conceptualising the Pre-History of Platinum Mining in Lebowa: Some Reflections

Laura Phillips

The paper that I will be presenting at the History Workshop/SWOP seminar on 1 July tells the story of how Anglo Platinum managed to shore up the rights to some of the richest platinum reserves in the world. I outline how three Joint Ventures Agreements (JVA) in the 1980s between Anglo’s predecessor companies and the government of the Lebowa Bantustan which allowed Anglo to expand its influence over the northern and eastern limbs of South Africa’s Bushveld Igneous Complex (BIC). Very little is known about these JVAs and as I will explain in the presentation, the silence around them is the product of a set of deliberate political decisions to keep the facts out of the public eye.

Though the details of the JVAs are complex and fascinating, the paper also opens a broader set of discussions about the difficulties of balancing the pressures of the global platinum market and local politics, the relationship between property regimes and mining, and the similarities and differences between the history of mining in Bophuthatswana – an ostensibly ‘independent’ Bantustan – and Lebowa, which remained a ‘self-governing territory’ throughout the apartheid period. These issues will frame my seminar presentation.

To understand how and why Anglo and its predecessors sought to buy the mineral rights to platinum in Lebowa, it is important to consider the changing global platinum market. Over the course of the 20th century, the price of platinum fluctuated far more than gold did. Platinum companies thus had to be particularly strategic in managing production and the supply of platinum in the market. To ‘over produce’ would result in a drop in price. However, though companies were careful not to over-mine, there was still great value in securing mineral rights for future operations. But to hold on to mineral rights without using them, slowed down local economic development in the short term. Anglo’s predecessor companies thus had to both contain the pressures from below – as they did in Lebowa – to facilitate local economic development and mining production, while carefully managing production and fighting off competing mining companies so as not to flood the market. By the late 1980s, the pressure both from the market and from Lebowa was particularly difficult to balance. The platinum market had become increasingly shaped by the interests of investors who were less concerned about production than they were about shareholder confidence. At the same time, the Bantustan project was increasingly being shown up to be the fraud that it was, unable to make racial segregation viable or offer even basic material support for the livelihoods of the majority of Africans living in their territories. It was in this fraught context that Anglo’s predecessors secured their rights to the platinum reserves in Lebowa.

As Gavin Capps has argued, property regimes are also fundamental to understanding the ability and strategies of mining companies to secure mineral rights. South Africa’s gold companies of the 19th and 20th century primarily operated on privately owned land with privately owned mineral rights. It was thus possible to secure mineral leases or purchase the mineral rights through the market (Capps 2016, 469). However, land in the Bantustans was subject to a different set of property relations. As the Bantustans were slowly established out of the ‘native reserves,’ most of the land in the territories was registered in the name of the South African state which then held this land ‘in trust’ for its African residents. This transferred the authority to make commercial decisions for the land to the central state. Thus, mining deals in the Bantustans were often negotiated over the heads of African residents.

When Bophuthatswana became ‘independent’ in 1977, the Bophuthatswana government took control over land that had previously been held in trust by South Africa. In this north western Bantustan then, Rustenburg Platinum Mines (RPM), Impala Plats (Implats) and others, developed a close relationship with the Bophuthatswana government to secure the necessary rights to the rich platinum reserves in the territory. Lebowa however never gained ‘independence,’ remaining a ‘self-governing territory’ until the end of apartheid. However, in 1986 it secured control over much of the land of the territory, giving it similar power to that of the Bophuthatswana government. However, precisely what this new power meant and how far it extended was vague and unclear. To operate in this environment, Anglo’s predecessors had to navigate the changing and ambiguous nature of property and mineral rights in Lebowa. As I will discuss in my presentation, they managed to do so successfully, but, as in Bophuthatswana, they had to develop new sets of relationships with local actors in the Bantustan.

In 1995, Johannesburg Consolidated Investment (JCI), the holding company for many of the subsidiaries operating in Lebowa, unbundled. Most of its mining interests were transferred to Anglo Platinum and its other business interests were moved to Johnnic Communications and various other companies. In the post-apartheid period, the control that Anglo has had over the platinum reserves in the former Lebowa (now Limpopo) has been a source of much debate, tension and in some cases, violence. Most well-known and documented have been the multiple legal cases and challenges over the legitimacy of Anglo’s operations on the Mogalakwena Mine near Mokopane, where sections of the local community have been removed from the land to facilitate mining. Many Mokopane residents have long wondered how Anglo managed to stitch-up control over such rich mineral resources while they have struggled to secure any benefits from the vast mining operations on their land. The presentation I’ll give on Wednesday is the start of that story.

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