PHOKENG, South Africa – Towering over a cluster of one-story houses that make up the Bafokeng capital, this 45,000-seat stadium is a glaring symbol of this tribe’s newfound wealth that also highlights the preponderant role sport plays in their community.
Royal Bafokeng Stadium is the only community-owned stadium of the 10 sporting venues of South Africa’s soccer World Cup. It has already hosted the attention-grabbing England-United States clash and will have hosted a total of six matches by the time the tournament is over, including the upcoming second-round match between Team U.S.A. and Ghana on Saturday.
In addition, the nearby Bafokeng Sports Campus, a brand-new training facility, was chosen as its base camp by the England team, easily the media’s darling with Beckham among its staff and a throng of tabloid reporters in tow.
The Bafokeng, a tribe of roughly 300,000 who live in 29 villages spread across a territory half the size of Rhode Island in northern South Africa, also owns professional franchises in soccer and rugby and sent four of its athletes to last year’s World Athletics Championships in Berlin.
Sport opportunities are not reserved for elite athletes, and 11,000 Bafokeng children are enrolled in sport development programs.
“It is important to note that our sports facilities don’t only get the community on its feet and generate income,” said King Leruo Molotlegi in his State of the Royal Bafokeng Nation address earlier this year. “The sporting values and physical benefits of sport are quietly reshaping the nation.”
The origins of the Bafokeng remain debated, but they seem to have come from present-day Kwazulu-Natal and were building stone structures in their current location near the city of Rustenburg as early as 1450.
The tribe’s most fateful decision occurred in the second half of the 19th century when King Mokgatle sent a group of men to Kimberley’s diamond mines to earn enough money to legally buy the land they had occupied for centuries.
Platinum, a metal used in cars and cell phones that is now more precious than gold, was discovered and exploited on Bafokeng land during the 20th century. The Bafokeng earned their first royalties in 1978, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the tribe was truly able to benefit from its riches.
After apartheid ended in 1994 and a new constitution increased the rights of indigenous peoples, the Bafokeng, armed with their land titles, took the mining companies to court and won substantial settlements and rights to future earnings from the mines. This paved the way for a financially secure future for the tribe.
Today, the Bafokeng own shares and earn royalties and dividend income from two major mining companies, Impala Platinum (Implats) and Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats). In order to prepare for the time when platinum runs out, the tribe has established a diversified investment fund, much like Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, that at year-end had assets valued at more than $4 billion.
The Bafokeng suffer many of the problems that plague the rest of South Africa, from poor education to dire poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but their relative wealth allows them to make drastic improvements. On the education front, for instance, private schools and special programs have already produced results. Last year, the top three mathematics students in the Northwest Province’s high school exams came from Bafokeng programs.
The Bafokeng are also big believers in the educational value of sports, and the Royal Bafokeng Sports agency administers development programs in soccer, rugby, athletics, martial arts and netball — a sport similar to basketball.
“Sport is very important to us,” said Martin Bekker, a spokesman for the Royal Bafokeng Nation. “It keeps kids off the street.”
The most visible symbol of the Bafokeng’s commitment to sports is Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which was built in 1999 and renovated for the World Cup, but it’s not the only one. The Bafokeng Sports Campus, inaugurated in May, markets itself as a facility for both international athletes and homegrown talent to train at altitude. It met the high standards of England coach Fabio Capello, who said he was “happy with the facilities.”
Bafokeng officials insist the expense for the sporting venues is money well spent. They say the facilities provide jobs to locals and raise the Bafokeng profile internationally.
The immediate benefits of the month-long World Cup remain unclear. Residents have been involved in the organization of matches, and nearby shops and taverns are filling up with hungry and thirsty fans on game days. But one doesn’t need to stray very far from the stadium to find Bafokeng people who feel little World Cup fever.
Stanley Ranala, 25, is too old to have benefited from the Bafokeng’s educational reforms. He said he dreamed of meeting international visitors, but they don’t venture to Phokeng’s civic center where he works as a security guard all day. And as far as attending World Cup games in his hometown, that won’t happen either.
“I don’t have a ticket because I don’t have enough money,” he said.