Royal Bafokeng Nation one of World Cup’s best stories to tell

The greatest sports business story of the 2010 FIFA World Cup will not be about a team, a sponsor or even a specific match. It will be the story of the Royal Bafokeng Nation.

The Bafokeng tribe owns the host venue, Royal Bafokeng Stadium, for the June 12 U.S. vs. England match. The tribe’s 29 contiguous villages are located on the Bushveld Complex, the richest known reserve of platinum group metals and chrome in the world. This wealth has allowed the tribe the opportunity to use sports as a major vehicle for the advancement of its 300,000 citizens. The tribe’s platinum mining enterprises are valued in the billions.

Royal Bafokeng Stadium is described as the most African of the 10 World Cup venues. Located 90 minutes by car from Johannesburg and 30 minutes from the Las Vegas-style resort Sun City, this is not an urban venue. Although identified on all rosters as the city of Rustenburg, the stadium is actually located in Phokeng, the heart of the Royal Bafokeng Nation led by King, or “Kgosi,” Leruo Molotlegi. When you hear reference to a tribal region like this, you can think similar, although by no means equivalent, to Native American tribes: The South African constitution recognizes the continuation of these chiefdoms and many independent governance powers.

Royal Bafokeng Stadium was known as the
best pitch during the Confederations Cup.

The Royal Bafokeng Nation story has an almost fairy-tale quality to it. In the mid-1850s, the tribe was displaced from its land by European invaders. The then-Kgosi understood the importance of holding on to the land and was willing to do whatever he could to get it back. So, beginning in 1870, the Kgosi sent the young men of the tribe off to work in the diamond mines in Kimberley, miles away from the village. The men went on foot and stayed for six months at a time and then brought back what they earned.

Due to the social and political circumstances, the Kgosi was not able to buy the land directly from the Europeans. This inability to purchase land was later made even more definitive with the passing of the 1913 South African Native Lands Act. But in a masterstroke of leadership, the Kgosi entered into a deal with the Lutheran Mission Society to buy the land and hold it in trust for the tribe.

As political and racial circumstances in the country evolved, the tribe sought to exercise its ownership rights. In the 20th century, with support for apartheid on the decline, the tribe began to seek resolution in the courts. In the midst of this battle for land, a new development unfolded. In the 1920s, platinum deposits were found beneath these ancestral lands. Not just some platinum, but by some calculations the largest platinum deposit on the planet. In 1999, the Royal Bafokeng Nation won its courtroom battle.

Following this courtroom success, Kgosi Mollwane Molotlegi, with visions of a festive place to host events, built Royal Bafokeng Stadium without a sports portfolio to support it. When I asked various people why the stadium was built, the answers were as simple as to serve as a meeting place and as grand as the logic that follows construction of an Eiffel Tower or the St. Louis Arch. Whatever the true vision, Royal Bafokeng Stadium is now a key venue for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Royal Marang Hotel at Bafokeng Sports
Campus offers five-star accommodations.

The current Kgosi extended the sports development vision even further. He is putting the finishing touches on a sports academy, a la IMG in Bradenton, Fla. I visited the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus in March, and it is magnificent. England’s team is signed on to be housed and train there for the World Cup’s duration. Other teams are now looking at it admiringly, as well, with its top-rated soccer pitches and five-star residences. There is the added benefit of training at high altitude. With the addition of tennis courts, its proximity to Sun City’s glitz and glamour, and land for endless expansion, the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus could be a much-in-demand training venue for athletes around the globe seeking an edge. At a minimum, it will be used in the sports participation pyramid model being executed by the Kgosi.

The Kgosi also purchased a professional soccer team, the Platinum Stars, and a rugby team, the Platinum Leopards, to play in the stadium. But that’s just the tip of the pyramid. At the base, he has put in place programs to provide opportunities for mass sports participation. He is instituting sports in schools, something apartheid-era black South Africa did not have. His vision has kids with the opportunity to enter sports at the youngest age and to have a venue as well as teams to aspire to should they excel at the highest level.

But if you look closer, this is not the American model, where sports often trumps education. The Kgosi is constructing an academy for excellence in education as well. Excellence is the overriding strategy of leadership in this community.

During the Confederations Cup, Royal Bafokeng Stadium was known as the best pitch in South Africa. The executives of the Royal Bafokeng Nation, led by sports director George Khunou, are striving to accomplish that feat again.

But also watch beyond the pitch, and the Bafokeng may provide a model for excellence in more important sectors of life. The Royal Bafokeng Nation is positioned to put both the business and social power of sports to the full test. It bears our attention beyond a one-month sporting event. Their success will provide valuable lessons for all who are touched by sports and make policy.        

Kenneth L. Shropshire ( is the David W. Hauck Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and faculty director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. He is writing a book about sports and social impact.

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