Young African tribal king's short, charmed reign

Popular leader, who died at 35, battled to make tribe richest of continent

April 29, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PHOKENG, South Africa -- The king of the richest tribe in Africa flew his own helicopter, owned luxury cars and counted pop star Michael Jackson and actor Wesley Snipes among his friends.

But here in the small North West Province mining town he ruled, where red dust swirls in the streets and donkeys loaf along the sidewalks, the young Howard University graduate is being mourned as a king who enriched his Bafokeng tribe more than he ever did himself.

He fought a platinum mining giant for money he said his people were owed, winning millions of dollars in royalties for his 300,000-strong tribe. He brought electricity, water, roads and schools to Phokeng and more than two dozen Bafokeng villages scattered in the foothills of the Pilanesberg Mountains. He jump-started his town's sleepy economy, building factories and a shopping mall to provide jobs. He launched a Web site, He constructed a 45,000-seat stadium and a swimming pool complex, dreaming of a day his people would play host to a World Cup soccer match or the Olympics.

In a period when other African tribal leaders struggle to pull their people out of poverty without compromising traditional beliefs, King Lebone Molotlegi II appeared to get the balance right.

And then late last month, soon after his 35th birthday, he became ill and died of cardiac arrest, ending his charmed five-year reign.

"South Africa has lost a very bright young leader, not only of the Bafokeng but of the whole people of our country," South African President Thabo Mbeki told mourners this month as they wept beside a coffin draped with the skin of a leopard, a sign of royalty. "Through his leadership and vision he has brought more light to this part of our country ... his work, his actions, his commitment to uplift the people of Bafokeng, are an important lesson to all of us."

It was the second time in a year that the royal family entered a traditional monthlong period of mourning. Last April, Molotlegi's younger brother -- the second in line to become king -- was found dead in Hillbrow, the drug capital of Johannesburg. Local media reported that traces of cocaine were found in his blood, but police are still investigating the death. The throne goes to the third son, who up until a few weeks ago lived the modest life of an architecture student at the University of Natal and drove an old Toyota Corolla.

Descended from Sotho-Tswana people who flowed from present-day Botswana south into what is now South Africa, the Bafokeng settled in the Phokeng region in the 16th century to raise cattle and farm pumpkins, beans and watermelon.

Chased off their land by raiding tribes in 1825, the Bafokeng returned several years later to find white settlers were taking up their farmland. King Molotlegi II's great-great-great-great-grandfather sent teams of men to work at the diamond mines in Kimberly and used the money to buy back thousands of acres.

Little did he know that just beneath the surface of their farms was the largest platinum deposit in the world, stretching about 200 miles across this dry, mountainous region. Discovered by geologists years later, mining began there in the 1960s, generating a fortune in royalties for the Bafokeng.

But royalties were not as large as they could have been. Under apartheid, the Bafokeng people were absorbed in the black homeland of Bophuthatswana and royalties were split between the Bafokeng and the homeland government. When he assumed the throne in 1995, after the end of apartheid, King Molotlegi stepped up the fight for the Bafokeng's full rights to the mineral riches beneath their land. Calling the old agreement a "rip-off," Molotlegi pushed for more compensation. The Impala Mining Co. caved in, raising royalties from 15 percent to more than 22 percent of company profits. The Bafokeng reap millions of dollars more each year and have a seat on Impala's board.

But what made Molotlegi a popular king was not so much that he increased his people's wealth; it was how he chose to spend it. Looking to the future, he warned the Bafokeng that the millions of dollars they reaped each year would last only as long as the mines continued operating -- about 25 to 30 more years.

No longer would his people's prosperity rise and fall with the price of platinum, Molotlegi decided. He opened a brick and tile factory, a textile shop, a pottery store, a construction company and turned Bafokeng into a brand name. The Bafokeng emblem -- a crocodile -- is emblazoned on everything from cement mixers to buses to storefronts in Phokeng.

He pushed Bafokeng students to go to college and established a scholarship program at Howard University, where two Bafokeng students study.

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