Three ministers in eye of storm

Three ministers in eye of storm

MASERU – THREE ministers are in the eye of a storm after they formed a company to manage businesses that fall under their ministries.
Small Businesses Development Minister Chalane Phori, Trade Minister Tefo Mapesela and Energy Minister Mokoto Hloaele registered the business on May 22.
They are in a partnership with Manamolela Kuenane, a businessman.

Masimo a Matala (Pty)’s registration documents were splashed on social media this week, triggering howls of protest from the public.
What seems to have angered the public is that the company will venture into animal husbandry and will target the beef as well as wool and mohair sectors.
Mapasela and Phori have pushed two controversial regulations that have drastically changed rules in the beef, wool and mohair sectors.

The government banned the import of beef late last year. Meraka Lesotho, a company largely owned by foreigners, was granted the monopoly to import beef.
The decision threw the meat industry into quandary and upended the business models of some butcheries and meat wholesalers.
The government refused to budge even as butcheries and wholesalers argued that Meraka was getting an unfair advantage and did not have the capacity to supply the market.
Some have since sued to reverse the policy.

The government has also announced new regulations for the wool and mohair sector. The regulations prohibit the export of wool and mohair without a licence.
And even those licenced are not allowed to export the wool and mohair unless it is “prepared, brokered, traded and auctioned in Lesotho”. There are steep jail sentences and fines for those who violate the regulations.
Farmers say the regulations are meant to sideline BKB, a company that has been buying their wool and mohair for four decades.
The plan, they allege, is to force them to sell their wool and mohair to Maseru Dawning Trading, a company owned by Shi Stone and owns a wool and mohair processing centre in Thaba Bosiu.
Observers find it curious that after pushing those policy changes the three ministers are now venturing into the same industries.

Others have opined that they were pushing the new regulations to tear down hurdles for themselves. Terms like “conflict of interest” and “insider trading” have been used to describe their actions.
Some on social media and radio stations wondered how the ministers would treat the industry once they have invested in the same business.
Others questioned if the ministers were already planning to venture into the same sectors before they started pushing the new rules.
The ministers this week told thepost that they don’t see anything wrong with their actions. They all deny allegations of conflict of interest (See sidebars for their detailed responses).
They are also adamant that they have a right as ministers to start businesses.
But some people don’t see it that way.

Ask retired politician Montšuoe Lethoba whose business was turned on its head after the ban on red meat imports.
Lethoba, who has been in the meat industry since 1994, said it is clear that the ministers have changed the law to benefit from the sector.
Lethoba said it is obvious that the three ministers want to supply meat to Meraka Lesotho.

He said he could see that something was amiss when the government abruptly banned beef imports and made Meraka the sole importer.
“My suspicion is that these ministers want to supply their produce to Meraka,” Lethoba said.
He said in Meraka they have a ready market for their produce.

Lethoba alleged that Phori has always been in the meat business and he used to buy from his business before he became a minister.
Lethoba said the ministers have “gone to the extreme” in their quest to benefit from the sector.
Another businessman, Khotsang Moshoeshoe, a sheep farmer, told thepost that they saw it coming. He said the three ministers changed the laws and policies to suit themselves.
He accused the ministers of “working for themselves not the nation”.

“We think the government has been misdirected by the Chinese man who wants us to sell him our produce,” he said.
He said they were not consulted when the government enacted the Agricultural Marketing (Wool and Mohair Licensing) Regulations 2018.
Moshoeshoe described the regulations as “malicious”.

“It is only now that the government is moving in the districts to sensitise us of the law when it is already enacted”.
Opposition politicians too see this as self-enrichment.  Motlalentoa Letsosa, chairman of the Democratic Congress (DC), said what the ministers have done is a typical example of a conflict of interest at its best.

He said although the ministers claim the company will have other activities like production of fruits and vegetables he believes the ultimate target is wool and mohair.
The ministers insist that there is nothing wrong or illegal to form a company.

They said the company has been formed in a good spirit to contribute towards food security in the country.

Phori’s answer

There is a howl of protests from many people about the perceived motivation of registering the company, what is your view on that?

There is nothing illegal that we have committed to team up and form a company. This is what we advised Basotho to do in a bid to create employment opportunities and escape the biting poverty. We have not breached any law or the ABC poverty reduction policy to form the company. In fact we have been in line with the party’s policies of eradicating poverty. I am a leader and I have to lead by example.

What is the motive of registering the company?

You are asking one question many times. We have teamed up to form this company because we want to help Basotho escape poverty. We want to help Basotho and Lesotho to transform its economic landscape so that we do away with this culture or trend of importing almost everything from South Africa.

Can’t you see any conflict of interest in this matter?

There is no conflict of interest here. I have been in business for a long time and have a couple of stores that l run. I have Mr Wors, a bricklaying company and a construction company but they have never tendered from government.
I formed some of the businesses before I became a minister. I am a leader and I have to lead by example. And since I got into business I have never tendered even for a single government job.
And at this time around, there is nothing that could make me bid for government’s tenders. It is Basotho’s culture to complain about everything, therefore there is nothing here to worry about. I have always moved around the country pleading with Basotho to venture into businesses in a bid to escape poverty and create employment opportunities.

What came first, an idea to register the company or an idea to change policies?

I have responded to this! I have always been in business. It is not my first company to run. Back in 2012 before I became a minister, I met with the Minister of Social Development ’Matebatso Doti to form a company.

Where does company fit in the Meraka, Wool and Mohair, and vegetables companies?

Like every Mosotho man I will take my animals to sell to Meraka like I have always done. There is nothing peculiar for me to do.

Why are you involved in the company as ministers?

I am employed as a minister and earn some money. I want to invest my salary for the benefit of Basotho. When this company generates some revenue, I am going to employ people from my constituency first. The name of our company says it all. We want to transform Lesotho’s ailing economy through agriculture.
I am from the private sector and l want people to move into this sector. It is not only the government that has to create job opportunities.

Majara Molupe

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