14 April 2024 | 02:46 AM

The Batlhako people have accused their chief of a secret deal to rehabilitate a chrome mine.

Key Takeaways

“BBM Mining, an Ormin Holdings company. Danger. No unauthorised persons. All visitors to report to site office.”

The signs outside the locked picket fence at Vlakfontein, 30km from Sun City in North West province, certainly suggest an operational mine, and the company behind it, Ormin Holdings and its subsidiary, Batlhako ba Matutu Mining (BBM).

The Batlhako community, on whose land the mine is situated, believe that recent mining activity has taken place at Vlakfontein — and that it is illegal.

However, Ormin chief executive Ian van der Walt hotly denies that the company has undertaken any mining. He believes he has been caught in the crossfire between the community and its leader, Ezekiel Mabe, who, he said, approached him about restarting a discontinued chrome mine at Vlakfontein, which was active in the 1960s.

Chief Mabe is central to the fracas. Community members accuse him of reaching a private deal with Ormin for his own benefit, without their knowledge or consent.

They also accuse him of secretly setting up a trust — the Batlhako ba Matutu Trust — as a representative body, when they were already represented by their own organisation, the Motsitle Land and Community Development Trust.

Objection

They point out that section 104 of the Petroleum and Mineral Resources Development Act ­explicitly requires the community’s permission for mining activities on ­communal land.

Discovering in 2011 that a large tipper truck was active on the site, the community lodged an objection with the office of the mineral resources department in Klerksdorp.


[Photo: Delwyn Verasamy]

After conducting an inspection on March 13 this year, the department ordered Ormin to stop mining forthwith and rehabilitate the land.

AmaBhungane has seen the inspection report, which declares that Ormin has no permit to mine on the site in question.

Underlying the dispute is a deeper quarrel about Mabe’s right to the chieftainship and therefore to speak for the community, with some members arguing that his brother is the rightful successor.

Is this community being taken for a ride with the connivance of its traditional leader, or has Mabe acted in good faith to create wealth and jobs for the benefit of the Batlhako?

Have he and Van der Walt gone behind the backs of locals, or is the community divided because the scent of money is in the air?

Tension

Van der Walt argues that some members of the community are satisfied with the mining agreement.

But amaBhungane attended a tense meeting between him, the chief and community members, at the community hall in Mabeskraal village in May this year, which suggested that a majority of Batlhako are unhappy about the deal.

Flanked by four burly men who appeared to be bodyguards, the uneasy-looking Ormin chief executive faced a barrage of questions from a large group of community members.

They wanted to know why they were not informed about plans to mine on their land; why only Chief Mabe and Van der Walt were directors of BBM and why, if the company was set up to benefit the community, as claimed, 74% of the shares would be held by Van der Walt in five years.

Also under scrutiny was Mabe’s Batlhako ba Matutu Development Trust. Why was this created three months after the Motsitle trust, to do what seems to be the same job?

Mabe told the gathering that he had set up his trust to take advantage of section 104 of the Minerals Act, which gives traditional communities preference in the granting of mining rights.

Investor

Van der Walt explained that Mabe was merely a director of the mining company and that the Batlhako were the shareholders.

He said that he would own most of the shares in BBM because he had invested R20-million in the operation.


[Photo: Delwyn Verasamy]

Later, he told amaBhungane that this outlay was for exploration, legal fees, overheads, consulting fees, security, a drilling plant and other equipment.

AmaBhungane interviewed Motsitle chairperson Ontiretse Kgasoe, who said: “We found out that there was mining activity at Vlakfontein only from a herdsman who took his cattle there for grazing.”

The agreement between Ormin and Mabe was unlawful because the community had not been consulted, he insisted.

“If there is to be an agreement, the Motsitle trust should be the rightful community representatives in the agreement with Ormin.”

Shocked

Kgasoe found it “shocking” that the community would hold only 26% of the shares in BBM.

“Clearly, Ormin will be major beneficiaries of the deal,” he said.

He also complained that there had been no follow-up by the department since its intervention in 2011.

“What further steps has it taken to ensure that the land has, indeed, been rehabilitated?”


[Photo: Delwyn Verasamy]

A spokesperson for the mineral resources department, Trevor Hattingh, said that officials had conducted follow-up inspections on March 12 and April 23 this year and found that no rehabilitation had taken place.

BBM had been officially notified to rehabilitate the site and remove all mining equipment, and a case of illegal mining had been opened with the police.

Unviable

Kgasoe gave amaBhungane photographs, taken in 2011, which appear to show either mining or reclamation at the Vlakfontein open-cast mine.

However, Van der Walt said that Ormin had merely removed material from dumps on the site left by earlier mining operations. “We removed 1 000 tonnes, hardly even 1% of what is in the dumps,” he said.

The rubble was taken to a chrome plant in Mooinooi, which found that the percentage of the metal in the material was too low to justify reprocessing. No payment had been received for this tonnage, Van der Walt said.

In written answers to amaBhungane’s questions, Mabe said he found it strange that he was required to respond to allegations by people “who had ample opportunity to seek answers, as we had several engagements at Mabeskraal”.

The fact that the formation of the Motsitle trust had preceded that of the Batlhako ba Matutu trust did not mean the latter had less legitimacy, he argued.

Mabe said community members who opposed him were invited to join his initiative, but chose to go it alone.

“My principles do not allow me to siphon community assets for my personal benefit,” he insisted.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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