When Her Royal Majesty, Queen Mother Semane Bonolo Molotlegi of the Royal Bafokeng, woke up one morning to the news that miners were refusing to go underground demanding higher wages from one of the mines in which her 300,000-strong community owns shares, she immediately called the Royal Bafokeng Holdings CEO.
South Africa had made world headlines on August 16, when 34 miners in the small mining town of Marikana, in the North West province, were mowed down by police in the most brutal shootings to have hit the country since the days of apartheid.
For someone who says she’s not only unfamiliar with the workings of the corporate world, but is not involved in the family’s business affairs, didn’t it occur to her that she was crossing the line when she made that call?
Clearing it all up during our interview, she insisted that she was merely sharing a concern as “our mines are in the villages. If something like that [Marikana shooting] could happen, things would be worse in our case.”
Hers was to merely advise the CEO: “Try to be proactive. Maybe you should consider giving it [the wage increase] to them.”
Whatever the CEO was going to do with her advice, she would maintain, was entirely up to him.
As the nominal head of the royal family—their net worth is estimated at more than $5 billion—Queen Molotlegi presides over a range of mining, telecommunications and financial sector assets.
Their investment arm, the Royal Bafokeng Holdings (RBH), has substantial investments in platinum mining companies, Implats and Royal Bafokeng Platinum, and in ferrochrome miner Merafe. It also owns 1.97% of Vodacom SA, a cellular communications company with a 54% share of the South African market. RBH’s financial sector investments include a 15% interest in diversified financial services holding company RMB Holdings, as well as a related 15% interest in RMI Holdings, a company that owns stakes in some of South Africa’s largest and wealthiest insurance companies.
Royal Bafokeng also owns Platinum Stars, a team that plays in the richest football league on the African continent, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.
“It’s all on behalf of the Bafokeng, whatever we get from the assets is of community benefit,” she says.
And it’s been like that at least from the day she joined the family after tying the knot with her children’s father in an arranged marriage back in 1963.
“My husband would get the royalties, then use the money to build infrastructure like schools, roads, bridges and clinics. When he passed away, and our eldest son took over, he continued from where his father left. And when my eldest died, too, his younger brother, who took over, followed from where his brother left.”
The Queen Mother insists she doesn’t get treated differently. She gets a salary and, like everybody else, has to work for it.
She has to submit to her boss, Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi, her third son and the present King of the Royal Bafokeng, who is currently running all royal affairs.
“He is in charge, I don’t meddle. I respect the fact that he is in charge,” the Queen Mother says.
What, then, is your role? I ask.
“Do I have one? I don’t think so. I jump from one role to another. I’ve ended up advising. If something is brewing, I intervene,” she says.
The Bafokeng Nation, as they prefer to call themselves, is a tight knit community, which Queen Molotlegi says has one of the most advanced political and administrative systems around.
The highest decision-making body is the Supreme Council, a kind of Parliament comprising of 92 representatives.
Twenty members of the council are elected regional representatives, while 72 are from the hereditary council of herdsmen drawn from the 72 villages that make up the Setswana-speaking nation.
The council sits at least twice a year, ostensibly “to discuss the needs of the people” and then take decisions either by consensus or through voting. The CEO of the nation’s investment company is often invited to attend the council and to report back.
Before the Supreme Council sits, the various regions hold public meetings called “makgotla”, where they thrash out matters to be taken up by their herdsmen and regional representatives to the Supreme Council.
It was at one of the Supreme Council meetings, more than 10 years ago, that the Queen Mother says the Royal House took a decision to move away from taking royalties and to get into owning mines as well as other forms of active investments. Years later, this would be followed by diversification into financial services and telecommunications.
“Knowing that mines are going to deplete at some point, does it mean we would also perish as Bafokeng? That’s when we formed RBH, realizing we can no longer have our eggs in one basket.”
As would be expected of a traditional leader, the Queen maintains the Royal House has done very well to keep its subjects—or rather, the nation—together and happy.
Not that it’s been easy.
“You are never able to please everybody”, the Queen Mother says, citing times when some “bad potatoes” from the kingdom would ask “Why don’t we take all the money and share it among everybody?”
“Some people came forward to say, ‘We know that land can secure bank loans, so can we please get our piece of land’.”
A staunch Christian, she says she “prayed and prayed”—until everyone saw sense in her and her family’s point of view.
“We had to unfortunately say we can’t do that because this is communal land. We had to ask: ‘What if you don’t pay, when the banks would have gotten in?’ The bank would take over your land.”
The land issue hasn’t come up again, leaving her with enough time nowadays to focus on her charity work, which she does through her own foundation and educational trust.
She also spends a great deal of her time going to schools to encourage learners to study.
A patron of South Africa’s national women’s football team, Banyana Banyana, she often goes to some of their matches to encourage them.
She is also the patron of Girl Guides Association of South African—the voluntary, girls-only organization, which teaches good citizenship, practical skills and moral values.
Like the girl guides, she finds herself wanting to do good, but in a world that is full of contradictions and competing priorities.
While, for example, she believed workers should just be given the wages they were asking for, to avoid a bigger crisis, her fellow investors at Impala Platinum and Royal Bafokeng thought it was something they could not afford—if they were to keep the mines sustainable and preserve the thousands of jobs their mines provide.
There is little doubt, though, about the fact that one of the things that motivate her—apart from her professed primary objective of wanting to do all things good for her nation—is the urge to stave off danger and to avoid seeing fingers pointing at her family.
And for that she relies on her own deep sense of pragmatism, and her apparent adroitness at handling conflicts—something that is missing in South Africa’s mining industry at the moment.
But that’s not to suggest she isn’t aware of her family’s privileged position and her particular place in it.
It was when I walked into the room where the Queen Mother and I were going to do the interview, that I almost immediately formulated an impression, a positive one at that. I even murmured to myself: “Mothers don’t come as simple, warm, graceful and mature”.
It was after our hour-long conversation that I realized, that beneath this benign, seemingly unsophisticated, naïve look, in fact, lay a royal who—while not oblivious to fact that she’s privileged and occupies a place in society that’s high above most—has found a way of juxtaposing humility and pride, and of looking well after her family.
Isn’t she good at her role? Whatever that role is.