Meraka Deal: Where is the beef?

Meraka Deal: Where is the beef?

Maseru – Small Businesses Minister Chalane Phori has come under a barrage of attacks for instigating and implementing the decision to ban beef imports. Over the past few weeks he has been accused of making policies on the hilt to create a monopoly out of Meraka Lesotho, the company that operates the national abattoir. Several butcheries and meat wholesalers have called on the minister to reconsider his decision. Yet despite the storm Phori has remained defiant, insisting that the decision is here to stay.

This week we spoke to him about the ban and the concerns from other quarters. We started by asking him to explain the motive behind the  controversial decision. We made that decision because we have the abattoir here. This is the only abattoir in this country and it is government which built the abattoir. And we have to fully utilise it. It is important that those running it do not struggle. That facility has to benefit Basotho. Basotho must benefit from their assets. It should be fully utilised. There was a time when it was not being used fully because when I came into office Meraka was operating like a butchery.

They were selling processed meat like mince and sausage yet they were occupying a national abattoir. Meanwhile, Basotho did not have anywhere to sell their cattle apart from people organising weddings and funerals. Now we have agreed with Meraka that every Wednesday they should buy cattle from Basotho farmers. We have been importing even Grade C even when we have Grade C here. I have told Meraka to stop operating like a butchery because that it is not what they are licenced to do. People must know that I did not invent this regulation but found it here. Sometimes you have to be radical if you want the economy to grow.

What would you say is the reaction from the market?

Basotho are now benefiting. Basotho are selling their cattle. That is the reaction of the market. Now at least our nationals are benefiting. We are retaining the money in the country. Lesotho got independence 52 years ago but it is still counted among the least developed countries.  That means we haven’t moved. The reason is because we don’t support our own people to grow their own businesses. We import everything. It’s time to change that. This ministry is saying Basotho and Lesotho first. We are living up to that motto.

But this policy is benefiting only Meraka while other companies are now struggling.

We don’t have any other abattoir. Those people who are complaining should show you any other abattoir in this country. I am saying there is nothing new here. It’s just that Meraka is now operating like an abattoir instead of a butchery. It had always been its job to slaughter animals. Before we changed things butcheries were slaughtering in the houses and their shops. Meraka is not being favoured but it’s the only abattoir here. On the issue of quality there will be a long debate. They will say everything from Lesotho is of poor quality.

They tell us our education is poor. We sell water to South Africa but we import bottled water from them because we say our water is terrible. To be a government or minister you should make hard decisions. I am not saying we should be pushing people but we are saying let’s do things differently. The idea of capitalism says the winner must take all and we are saying you cannot eat the whole loaf when others are starving. But others vehemently reject your argument. They say you are trying to create a monopoly out of Meraka so just a handful people can benefit while other companies go under.

The most noise has been coming from Montšuoe Lethoba. I am singling out Lethoba because he spoke about me in a newspaper. I respect him as a person and businessman but I have to respond to him. In the last government he was Deputy Speaker of Parliament and he was supplying meat to the army. I am not against that but I have to point it out it to give the issue a context. How could the regime then be on the side of Basotho when the top brass was benefiting? He came to my office and said he had a business deal with one South African company and this decision will make his business tough. I asked him to explain his deal so that I could assist him.

He said Meraka deals with cash and he doesn’t have cash. I sent him to Post Bank but while the bank was trying to assist him he rushed to the Ministry of Defence. The minister and the army informed me of the problem. I called Meraka, the Ministry of Defence and the army to a meeting where we agreed that Meraka will give him credit. The fact is that he does not want the money but wants to keep importing meat from South Africa. People like Lethoba were strategically positioned in the wealth so that they could continue to live well. That has changed so they are crying and making allegations.

So anyone is free to build an abattoir and get the same treatment as Meraka?

Everyone is free to open their abattoir. I was in China, Argentina and India looking for investors. Next week I will be in South Africa. I am looking for investors. We want people to partner with Basotho. We want to grow.  Anyone is free to start their own abattoir and they will be treated in the same way as Meraka. They will be treated like an abattoir in every respect. They will be no different as long as they buy from Basotho and comply.  It is important for people to know that the ministry has never stopped people from buying cattle from South Africa. Anyone is free to import cattle from South Africa but they cannot slaughter unless they have a licence. They have to take those animals to the abattoir because there are strict hygiene and health practices that must be upheld. It’s also meant to fight against livestock theft.

One company is already challenging the ban. What will happen if the government loses that case?

I won’t be surprised if we lose because the government has been losing important cases. I honestly cannot understand the logic here. The government makes regulations to control imports and exports then someone who doesn’t want to comply — a foreigner for that matter — goes to court to challenge that decision. I am saying I will not be surprised if the government loses the case because anything is possible in this country. I am telling you that we are not going to stop fighting even if we lose that case. If we lose I will comply with the judgement but I will not stop there. I will advise His Majesty’s cabinet to make even tougher regulations to protect Basotho because that is what we stand for. Basotho come first.

But Meraka is not owned by Basotho.

It’s purely Basotho-owned. You can check with the company register. There are five or six Basotho. Others are naturalised Basotho of Chinese heritage. I am not quite certain how many naturalised Basotho are there but I know they are there. The decision to allow the company to run the abattoir and issue passports to those people was made by the previous regime. Those people being referred to as foreigners are no longer foreigners by law. I am not talking on their behalf but these are the facts of the matter. But I must tell you that even if it was 100 percent owned by foreigners I would still support the company because the idea is to create jobs for Basotho.

Staff Reporter

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