PHOKENG, South Africa – The handsome young king of the Bafokeng people conjured a 39,000-seat stadium from the bush in the hope that one day the World Cup would come to this dusty overgrown village. “Let’s build this thing for the future,” one of his advisers, George Khunou, recalled his saying.
The most watched sports event on earth finally arrived here on June 12, a decade after the stadium envisioned by King Mollwane Lebone Molotlegi II opened and he died of surgical complications at 35.
As the American and English soccer teams played their first game on this field of dreams, the Royal Bafokeng Nation, with its platinum-fueled aspirations to greatness, found itself in the international spotlight. Children excited about their community’s coming moment of fame proudly paraded through the lanes of their villages in recent days.
A royal remnant in modern-day South Africa, the Bafokeng have contemporary relevance for the continent. Their current monarch, King Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi, an architect and the younger brother of King Lebone II, is trying to break the resource curse that has brought corruption and hardship to many African nations rich in gold, diamonds, oil, platinum and other natural resources.
“The continent is struggling,” said Leruo, 42. “There’s got to be somewhere where things are different. And that’s what inspires me. Are we going to be a continent of beggars forever, where things just break? Where you have all these resources and land? There’s no reason why it should be.”
He said he was striving to remake his small dominion – about half the size of Rhode Island, two hours northwest of Johannesburg and home to 300,000 people – into a meritocracy in which hard work and talent were rewarded. Sports are part of a broader plan to instill discipline and teamwork in a rural community governed simultaneously by a hereditary tribal authority and a liberal democratic nation, South Africa.
Under the king, the Bafokeng have invested about $70 million to upgrade the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, its World Cup site, and to build a sophisticated sports complex that is the base for England’s team. Most schoolchildren here have joined extracurricular sports programs paid for by the Bafokeng in the past few years, with Brazilians recruited to train hundreds of local soccer coaches to work in the 29 Bafokeng villages.
The Bafokeng are still afflicted with poverty, but their communally owned land sits atop an estimated 40 percent of the world’s reserves of platinum, a mineral more valuable than gold. Most of the money from it has begun flowing to the Bafokeng only in the past decade, but their increasingly diversified investment portfolio, which has quadrupled in value over the past five years, is now worth $4.3 billion, officials here say.
Leruo says he wants to preserve that fortune against the day when the platinum is depleted, so he relies mainly on interest and dividends to finance development.
“He’s not a populist,” said Niall Carroll, a former investment banker for Deutsche Bank who is chief executive of Royal Bafokeng Holdings. “He’s not going to blow the patrimony of the previous generations.”
The king’s greatest passion is education. He recruited his high school mathematics teacher, Ian McLachlan, to lead the Bafokeng institute that is reinventing education here, training teachers and principals, running extra math and science classes during holidays, building schools and goading school administrators to make sure the toilets are working.
The crown jewel of this effort is an architecturally striking new private school nestled in the Magaliesberg mountains, overlooking Phokeng and the sage-and-olive lands of the Bafokeng. It cost $72 million to build and is intended to create a standard of excellence for ambitious Bafokeng children.
Its principal, George Harris, says he hopes to recruit the best teachers in the world, who in turn will teach the teachers in the public school system in airy, spacious classrooms, each with an interior garden and its own toilets.
The school will open soon and eventually provide spots for 800 students from kindergarten through high school, mostly local children on scholarships paid by the Bafokeng. It will offer music, drama and sports, as well as academics.
“It’s not a school for the wealthy; it’s a school for the talented, whether you come from a well-to-do family or a humble background,” Leruo said.
The king, an athlete who lifts weights at a gym in nearby Rustenburg and talks education theory with McLachlan, is an intensely private man whose advisers say he sends them work-related e-mail and text messages into the wee hours of the morning.
One of them, Susan E. Cook, an American anthropologist he met while she was doing field work here in the 1990s, offered the proper etiquette before he strode into a conference room, dressed in a tailored charcoal gray suit and dove gray tie. “Stand when he enters and don’t extend your hand unless he does first,” she said. “He probably will.”
In the 19th century, land was granted to white settlers, dispossessing the Bafokeng of their communal lands here. King Mokgatle, a canny ruler regarded as the father of the nation, decided that the Bafokeng must buy farmland, with titles whites would recognize. Hundreds of Bafokeng men worked – and some died – in the diamond mines hundreds of miles away in Kimberley, contributing part of their wages to pay for the land. Blacks were prohibited from owning land at the time, so they bought it in the name of a white Lutheran missionary, who purchased the farms on their behalf.
Generations later, platinum was discovered under this very land. During the apartheid era and afterward, the Bafokeng fought a legal battle with Impala Platinum to hold onto their mineral rights and won a favorable settlement.
Leruo said he hoped he was making decisions now that would ensure his people’s future, as Mokgatle did more than a century ago.
“I’m thinking about what I can do today,” he said, “‘so that when I’m gone, 200 years from now, they will say, ‘We had somebody with foresight.”’