Phori ready to die for wool

Phori ready to die for wool

MASERU – SMALL Businesses Minister Chalane Phori has come under a barrage of attacks from farmers who accuse him of taking sides with the Stone Shi, the Chinese investor who holds Lesotho’s only wool and mohair brokerage licence. Phori is seen as the brains behind the controversial regulations that prohibit the export of wool and mohair. Others opine that his abrasive fight with the farmers who are resisting the regulations could be a sign that he stands to reap handsome rewards from giving Shi monopoly over Lesotho’s wool and mohair.

In recent weeks, pressure has mounted on him to reconsider his position because Shi seems to be struggling to pay the farmers on time and sell the wool in China. Yet despite the push back against the regulations and the serious problems has bedevil the Wool Centre, Phori has remained adamant that he is on the right path. Last week thepost spoke to Phori about the issues and he said he is not going to back down from the fight. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Are you aware that the Wool Centre has not paid more than 10 000 farmers?

There has not been any delay. We had the first auction on November 22 last year. The second was on 29 November which was followed by another on December 6 and another on 12 December. At that time, we were going towards Christmas.

What happened is that the Wool Centre booked 80 containers but the supplier did not deliver all of them because of the rumour that was influenced by BKB. The rumour was that farmers were so angry that they were going to burn the containers. That caused fear and the containers were not delivered.

Your explanation is an admission that there was a delay.

No, this was the just background I was giving. I am now going to explain why I say there was no delay. We promised farmers that they will be paid on December 24 but due to that issue of containers, we were not able to send the wool to the buyers on time. The government also delayed to start the auction. November 22 is normally the date Basotho farmers start getting their monies from BKB after waiting for six months.

Minister, you are explaining a delay. Nothing you have said so far supports your statement that there was no delay.

I am getting there. You will recall that farmers didn’t comply with the government directive to send their wool to the centre. They started hiding their wool and the government did not intervene with strong measures to enforce the law. It was only until government, through this ministry, started going to every shearing shed in the country that we started getting the wool. We were asking the farmers to write letters to the government to assist them with bullies who had hid the wool.

That problem lasted months. When Basotho used to sell their wool in Port Elizabeth, they would wait between four to six months to get their payments but they are bitterly complaining after just two months. It has been only two months since we started selling wool locally but they are already complaining. How do they justify their complaints?

Are you sure that farmers used to wait half a year before getting payments from the auctions in South Africa? It doesn’t sound true.

I am the minister here so I know what I am talking about. It’s not an idea but a fact. I know this for a fact because the farmers used to come to me to complain about the delays in payments. How can you ask me that kind of a question? I admit that there was a delay in paying mohair farmers. Traditionally, we shear mohair in April and I admit that until today, mohair farmers have not received their payments. The reason for the delay is that some farmers were hiding their mohair for months.

When we eventually found it, we noticed that it was wet and rusty. The process of deciding what to do with the damaged mohair took a long time. That Chinese then called the farmers to tell them the state of their mohair. He told them that it was not going to fetch good prices. He has however agreed to sell it in that state but it is yet to be shipped.

You keep using the word “we” when referring to the Wool Centre which is a private institution. Are you an extension of the centre?

When I say ‘we’ I mean the Wool Centre because there is a government policy being operated by that man who runs the centre. I don’t mean that I am part of it as a minister or individual.

Why are you giving their particular investor special treatment?

We treat every investor specially. It’s not just for that broker. We only have one brother in this country and yes we are treating him as special because he is an investor. If you are an investor here we make sure that you are covered.

By treating investors specially you mean changing government regulations to suit one individual investor?

No, that is not why we changed the regulations. We changed the law so that wool and mohair can be sold in Lesotho instead of being taken to South Africa. Since independence we have never sold our wool and mohair here.

The previous government did not think that it is necessary to make sure wool is sold here. It was not for the sake of this particular broker that we changed the law. It was for the sake of improving the industry. We had to intervene because our farmers were being exploited by foreigners.

So the Chinese man is not a foreigner?

I am talking about foreign companies that didn’t want to set up in this country. According to the 1974 regulations government is supposed to collect the entire dipping levy but BKB and the farmers’ association were collecting the money. They took the money and they never brought it back. And when the government veterinaries asked about the levy, BKB would say it is not governed by the laws of Lesotho.

Also, the company was not registered under the laws of Lesotho. They opened a bank account without the required documents like tax clearance and trader’s licence. We want them to pay back the VAT and the dipping levy they collected from this country.

But the dipping levy was never an issue before because government was struggling to manage the money. Since they took charge of collection of the levy, farmers have never complained about the lack of dipping chemicals.

Where have you heard a slave complaining about the master? The slave will never say anything because he is chained. People had to comply with the order to have the levy collected by the company or they would be expelled from the association (Lesotho Wool and Mohair Grower’s Association).

No, the collection of the levy was for practical purpose. Now the livestock department does not have chemicals to immunise even dogs yet you say government should be responsible for collecting dipping levy for more than a million animals?

Dipping of animals in this country remains the responsibility of the government. The Ministry of Agriculture has that mandate. Even the regulations say that. We used to have disease outbreaks because many farmers were not benefiting from the dipping levy that was collected by BKB and the association.

Why should farmers trust the government to manage the levy properly when it has dismally failed to do so in the past?

Why should the government be trusted to build the shearing sheds? That is the question we should be asking. We have empowered a lot of Basotho farmers with shearing sheds. We are the second largest producer of mohair in the world. We are fourth in the production of wool.

You speak so passionately about the broker who is running the Wool Centre. To whom does he belong?

He belongs to the previous regime. In 2012 that government brought that man from China. They had gone to ask that man to come here. Unfortunately in May of 2012 there was a change in government.

The government then helped the farmers establish the Wool Centre in a joint venture with the Chinese. That government lasted two years and another one came in 2014. The same Chinese man then came back because he belongs to that congress government. That man invested M42 million in that centre.

That amount is hotly contested. The association says it was only M2 million. Shi himself has given out different figures like M30 million, M33 million and M55 million. You are now saying its M42 million. Which is which?

What happened is that when the man came here he was given a subcommittee by the association. He was supposed to work with that committee during the construction of that centre. But there was always a problem every time he wanted to convene a meeting to deal with some issues. He was having trouble getting the committee to sign for the amounts required and this was delaying the project.

The committee then decided to approve the total cost of the construction and he funded the whole project from his pocket. The association is now saying the man invested only M2 million but that is not true at all.

But there is nowhere in the agreement that says the farmers should sell their wool to the centre. The court said there was nothing of that nature after he had sued the association.

The court said the wool belongs to the farmers and not the association. He was saying the association had agreed to sell wool to the centre.

That is precisely the point. There is no agreement on the sale of wool and mohair to the centre.

Why did the association partner with the man if it did not want to sell wool and mohair to the centre? What was the point of them calling this man to come to this country if they did not want to sell the wool to him?

What was the point of him funding the construction of the centre if there was no plan to sell the wool to it? That man came from his country to deal in wool and mohair.

It might have been his motive to get the farmers to sell their wool to the centre but his agreement with the association does not say that. The court also agreed that there was no agreement on the association selling wool to the centre?

The court said what it said but I still ask what was the motive for building the centre. Why did they call the investor to come here? The truth is that this wool thing is political. The association is full of politicians who don’t want this to happen under this government.

The chairman of the association was once an MP under the LCD. That is why he fights everything that Prime Minister Thomas Thabane does.

Still it does not answer the question why government is involved in a private matter between an investor and an association. This looks like a business deal that went sour. Where does the government come in?

The shearing sheds the farmers are using belong to the government. The government invested a lot of money in developing this sector. The government is there to regulate and control. The government controls.

That is why it can even control your family. It wants to know what happens to your children. The grass that the sheep are grazing belongs to the government. We are the ones who control the rangelands. We are there to take care of this sector.

It doesn’t look like there was going to be a disaster for the wool sector or the farmers if the government had not intervened.

The image of this country was going to be tainted. This was going to smear the image of this country. No investor was going to come to Lesotho if the association had got its way. International investors were going to think Lesotho doesn’t protect its investors. The image of this country would have been trashed. We are protecting the investment of Maseru Dawning which is a company that is owned by this Chinese investor.

So you protect Maseru Dawning by allowing it to be a monopoly in the trade of wool and mohair?

Is a monopoly bad? There are many companies that are monopolies but you are not asking about them. Why are you talking about this one only?

The world is moving away from monopolies and you are creating a new one.

I am not interested in whatever you call it. We are still expecting more companies to be licenced. How do you know that the prices the farmers are getting are lower than what they were getting in South Africa?

I see these figures every time and I know that the prices are good even when you say it’s a monopoly. What we want are good prices for our farmers. Everyone wants money. We are not creating a monopoly. We want more companies to come here.

Have you received applications for more licences?

I have not received any. There was one person who came here and I gave him the requirements. He doesn’t meet the requirements. I don’t understand why people talk about things they don’t understand.

Some people are saying you have been bribed.

I say they should talk about real money not this M6 million they say I got. They should say I got a billion. I am not cheap. M6 million is too small to induce me to tarnish my image. If they really want to tarnish my image they should talk about M1 billion.

When you dismiss the bribery allegations are you also speaking for your colleagues in government?

I speak for myself. I also speak for the government.

You have already spoken for yourself. Speak about colleagues in government.

My colleagues are influenced by government policies. They have learned how people have been exploited. People think they can just exploit Basotho and get away with it because they are uneducated. I cannot agree to that so I stand for Basotho.

How have the new regulations benefited the country?

There are 100 people who are employed at the centre. They are earning M1100 per week, which comes to M4400 a month. Basotho were being robbed by BKB. We have increased the farmers’ income because the farmers no longer pay for transport to the port. We have saved M15 million for them. We are also getting foreign currency for our wool.

Now we are working on giving five new licences for testing, bulk storage, brokerage, auctioning and trading. Now local insurance companies are insuring our wool. There are people being trained in testing and auctioning. The people have to be trained. I have sent some 30 people to be trained in China.

So when are the licences going to be granted?

We cannot just issue licences like idiots. We are not going to rush. We are doing our job. We are preparing our people for opportunities that are coming. We are not selling condoms. We don’t make law for display but to use for operations.

But in the meantime one man is benefiting from Lesotho’s M1 billion industry.

Maybe people are allergic to Chinese. The initial arrangement was between the investor and the previous government. Now when we implement those same policies they start complaining. There is a cannery in Mazenod but no one is using it. The day I find an investor for it people will cry again. I am a businessman getting a good salary from my businesses.

I am not here to play. I am here to develop this country. When you are in power you don’t spend time listening to everything people say because you will be stuck. I don’t entertain this noise about Chinese. They were brought here by the previous government. Those crying have to tell me which country has more people than China. Do they want Batswana to come here? The Chinese are here to do business in this country. I am sick and tired of Basotho who complain about everything. They say I am supporting Basotho. When I was pushing Chinese in the factories to pay a minimum wage of M2020 they said I was killing businesses. When I got them to pay that amount they said I am a good person.

You speak as if this is a political battle to you.

Yet it is political. The chairperson of the association is a politician whose government was removed by the people. The association’s committee is full of politicians. Most of them belong to congress parties. In parliament you can see that the opposition doesn’t want to discuss this wool issue.

Instead they are being confrontational about the wool issue to the extent that they take one fool to South Africa so that he can say nonsense and lies about the government.

Who are you talking about now?

I will not mention his name. If you want me to mention his name them you have to allow me to withdraw the word “fool”. If I was at a political rally I was going to mention his name but this is a newspaper interview. Sometimes I wish I was not a minister so I can say all the things I want. As a minister I am being asked to speak in a certain way.

It is irritating that the same people who were exploiting the people are now claiming to be speaking for the people after we stopped them from exploiting the people. In this country we argue with prisoners.

How far are you willing to take this fight?

Until I get removed from the position or die. I will fight even if it costs me my position. I stand for the people and this project has the potential to change the economy of this country. I started from the streets. I get pride from changing lives. I am not here to sell my soul from some Chinese. I am here to make my mark not make money. I grew up selling on the streets. That I am in this position tells me that God is great.

I am the man running the show here and if they want to change things they have to wait for their chance to take my position or change the government. I will leave this position and there will be no (PAC) Public Account Committee or (DCEO) Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences following me. I will help the prime minister achieve his vision for this country.

So you are going to stand with the investor even when it’s clear that the people are hostile to the idea?

When I support anything I do it with body, mind and soul. That is how I fought the previous government when it was harassing people. I spent years in exile. I used my money to travel to SADC meeting to protest about the treatment of my leader. I slept at a cemetery because soldiers wanted to kill me. They beat my bodyguard until he urinated blood. Just because I fight hard they say I have been bought.

Has BKB applied for a licence?

I said BKB should clear its name at the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) before they come to me for a licence. Those who think they can get a licence just like that are dealing with the wrong man.

Staff Reporter

 

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