Platinum enriches South African tribe

Platinum mine in South Africa

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: The heck with gold. Platinum was the truly precious metal today. It tipped the scales at a record $1,819 an ounce. Demand is up, so that's part of it. Also a power crisis in South Africa has forced mines to cut back on their operations. About two-thirds of the world's supply of platinum is mined in the northwest part of South Africa, but precious little of the profits reach the local economy.

Gretchen Wilson reports on one community that's trying to make sure more of the profits trickle down.


GRETCHEN WILSON: I'm standing on the richest known reserve of platinum in the world. Chutes spit rubble onto huge pyramids of black rock. Just beyond, runoff water pours into a slime pit. Behind me is the sprawling slum of Mfadikwe, flimsy tin shacks with no electricity or running water. Poverty and HIV are widespread. 52-year-old mine worker Silas Putsoane says most people come here with just one hope.

SILAS PUTSOANE: They can come and work and get some moneys to feed themselves and to feed their childrens.

Putsoane started this brass band to help his jobless neighbors. The unemployment rate here stands at 60 percent. Bands like Putsoane's play at weddings and funerals for money. About half a million black South Africans live here, in the homeland of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. Conditions are bleak, but this is actually the vanguard of community-oriented mining.

For centuries, the Bafokeng resisted colonization, and held onto their land. Now the Royal Bafokeng Nation is a shareholder in mines owned by the world's largest platinum producers. Sue Cook is an anthropologist who works with the Bafokeng. She says this is in stark contrast to mining industries in Zambia, Sudan and other parts of Africa, that allow mining companies full ownership, and demand little back for their local people.

SUE COOK: The leading edge of globalization, with regard to extractive industries, is to come in with your own equipment, your own people, your own security force, your own technology, take what you need and leave very little behind.

The Bafokeng Nation has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade, and stands to earn about $200 million a year here on out. Meanwhile, Bafokeng and migrant workers earn meager wages, but more than other mineral miners in the region, and will until the minerals run out in about 40 years, and by then, Phokeng should look very different.

NIALL CARROLL: I think you are likely to see a thriving metropolitan area with a range of industries operating from there, where I think basic infrastructure, such as education, health and so on, will be of, if not absolute world-class standard, pretty close to that.

That's Niall Carroll, CEO of Royal Bafokeng Holdings, an investment firm that handles the community's money, and taking a hint from the Middle East, they're diversifying their investments away from their diminishing asset and into technology, freight services and agriculture.

CARROLL: There's the same vision and there's same long-term view, to say how do you take an area of the world and create an enabling environment to attract investment?

Phokeng is teeming with construction crews building health clinics, world-class sports stadiums and 1,000 miles of new roads. Khumo Magano is with the Royal Bafokeng Nation.

KHUMO MAGANO: We have managed as an indigenous community to achieve all of those things because of what we are reaping from the mines themselves.

The Royal Bafokeng Nation is upgrading this area's 80 schools. Part of the plan is a $64 million flagship school in Phokeng that's already drawn the best teachers in the country. Gladys Molejwane is a second-grade teacher in a new bilingual classroom.

GLADYS MOLEJWANE: We're looking at something that we've never seen before. We can see that the vision of the school is going to be achieved, and what is going to be then, will be something that will be the model for South Africa, maybe the whole world.

Right now platinum money is putting 800 local students through college in South Africa's biggest cities. The idea is to develop them into engineers, doctors and teachers who will return to the Royal Bafokeng Nation.

In Phokeng, South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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