Bapong, a sprawling village with a population of approximately 40 000, is the epicentre of the Bapo Ba Mogale royal community. The Bapo people first settled here around 200 years ago on land that holds some of the richest platinum deposits in the world. Lonmin was established here in 1970 on the basis of a lease agreement to pay the community royalties on the minerals extracted. Otto arrived in Bapong in 1989, working at the now-closed Newman Shaft for eleven years as an underground rigger, before moving to the “change house”, where he saw out the remainder of his working years.
Now a pensioner, Otto is an active representative and concerned resident of Bapong’s Newtown section. In 2015, he was summoned to the royal palace, shortly after presenting a letter he had signed on behalf of the community pertaining to various grievances. These grievances included Newtown councillors not performing their duties, lack of employment opportunities, and members of the tribal authority not participating in meetings with the chiefs to hear the community’s concerns. Adding to the general air of dissatisfaction among the community, a controversial R664m equity deal had recently been signed between Lonmin and the royal council, which would see mineral royalties converted into company shares. Otto was among those who voiced dissatisfaction with the agreement, believing the community would not benefit. This, he believes, also strained his relations with the royal palace. On his arrival, Otto stood before a chamber of more than 100 people who quizzed him on the grievances contained in his letter. Upon insisting they speak directly to the community about them, Otto claims senior members of the Bapo Ba Mogale Tribal Authority proceeded to beat him. A friend later took him to a local clinic, where he was treated for a fractured left hand and contusions to his body. Otto says he went with witnesses to the meeting who have refused to testify about the beating, who he says were bribed to keep quiet. He breaks down in tears as he reveals that family members working at the royal palace were present but didn’t intervene when he was attacked. He opened a case at Mooinooi police station, but nothing has come of it. “I have reopened my case several times, and every time I go back, they say my case has been dropped and nobody is going to jail.” His daughter has since left Bapong for fear of reprisals, but for now, Otto is staying put.
Community members claim that voicing concerns or gathering in groups of more than five to discuss community issues is restricted, and that even elderly people have been beaten and are afraid to testify and open cases. They say that in December, food parcels are given out to the people of Bapong as Christmas gifts, and those that speak out against the royal palace don’t receive them. Meanwhile, Otto’s injuries continue to give him pain and discomfort, and disturb his sleep. He says he has lost hope, yet he remains defiant. “They can do whatever they want with me, I don’t care because I know I didn’t fault anybody, even if they can kill me, it’s okay.”
Otto Lekalakala, 67, Bapong, Newtown section, North West, Western Limb