Trudging his way back to the top

Trudging his way back to the top

MASERU – ARTHUR Mokoena Majara is a Mosotho who lives by a Japanese wise saying – “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” One moment, he is a celebrity businessman and friend of the country’s foreign affairs minister. The next, everything was in smoke and he was back to the life of a pedestrian. For his friendship to Thomas Thabane, then a foreign minister, Majara lost his business. Soon after, his wife had to go. Thabane, has badgered through harsh times since those days as foreign minister and then as a runaway politician.

He is now Prime Minister. And Majara thinks he can walk the same road back to the top. A new venture is giving the 70-year-old some hope. Banca del’ Afrique has partnered with 357 FM Radio, managed by Majara’s only sibling Motlatsi Majara, and the now out of print Business Mate newspaper. Standing on the vast loggia of his Maseru East property where 357 FM is housed, Majara is looking ahead.

Although the house, a white double storey nestled on the slope of Mejametalana hill atop which is a military airbase, needs some maintenance, Majara seems convinced that it will be the headquarters of the coming glory. “We are going to expand this property. There will be residential flats behind this building,” he says. He knows how it feels being the top dog. He was the first Mosotho to bring the fast food giant KFC franchise to Lesotho, which instantly became a hit.

Majara also brought Woolworths Clothing and Dairy Bell Ice Cream franchises in the country. He bought into Phillips Lighting, which describes itself as a global market leader in lighting solutions. Life was good.
That was until September 1998 when political upheavals hit Lesotho as mobs burnt properties in Maseru, Mafeteng and Mohale’s Hoek towns. “All my businesses went up in smoke,” Majara says. “I was left with a few personal properties that included eight vehicles, three private cars and trucks,” he says.

Majara claims he was targeted because he was perceived as a supporter of the then ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). The party was in an alleged election rigging storm and Majara was caught in the crossfire because of his close friendship to Thabane, and Lefu Manyokole, a controversial journalist and radio presenter at the time. “I was not into politics but I was punished and suffered because of my close friendship with them,” he says.

“I used to visit Ntate Thabane at his house and I suffered as a result.” While he was cracking his head about how to start over, creditors were circling. The period between 1999 and 2012 was hell, he says. “The little money I had was for my daily survival,” he says. To pay his debts, Majara sold much of his personal and company property. His fleet of cars went under the hammer and he found himself a jobless, broke pedestrian.

“I struggled like my father, trying several things to see if there was any plan that could work for me,” he says. “I sat down and thought of what to do next.” At his lowest point, he says he was so broke that he decided to divorce his wife. “I am a single man now,” he says with a tinge of sadness. “The 1998 chaos did not only burn down my businesses but contributed to my family woes as well. I had to divorce to protect my family because all legal onslaughts were coming to me.”

However, he has won all the cases against him. Often, he represented himself because he could not afford a lawyer. He could not afford friends too. “Once you are in that position no one wants you,” he says. “You quickly become a social outcast.” The outcast condition soon turned into a business idea. In 2009 he formed Banca del’ Afrique Holdings, which he said was in the business of “planned giving”.

He describes this line of business as “a dreams factory in which infrastructure is built to assist clients with low cost entry into services that would otherwise require huge capital. “A client pays M1 000 a year to become a member of a scheme that offers different services such as business research, market research and advertising platforms. Unfortunately for him, the Central Bank of Lesotho forced the company to close down in September 2015 alleging that Majara was operating a bank or was receiving deposits from the public without a banking license.

He has now sued the Central Bank claiming M20 million for loss of business. “I am of the firm belief that this kind of business will help many small entrepreneurs see their dreams come true,” he says. “It is not a bank but I understand that once the people understand it they will use what it offers even if they have very little money or no money at all.” Majara says he was born poor but he is not determined to die one. His father was a maintenance officer at Thabeng Training School in Morija. His mother sold fat cakes.

Majara says he was fascinated by his father’s work. A handyman who could make almost everything doable, Majara’s father was Lesotho’s first maker of a hatching machine in early 1960s. He also reared chicken to complement his salary. He says his parents instilled the spirit of entrepreneurship in him. Majara enrolled with Lerotholi Polytechnic, then called Lerotholi Technical Training College, in 1964 where he studied electrical engineering before being employed at a government garage.

He went back to Lerotholi to teach before going overseas to further his studies under British Council Fellowship, at the Bolton Technical College. He also studied education at the Bolton College of Education before going to Victorian Manchester University for master’s degree, combining education with economics. He later obtained a doctorate in Social Sciences and then worked for the Southern Scotland Electricity Board. In 1980 he returned home and worked for the government for a year before joining De Beers Group where he taught technicians and helped in establishing training centres.

Majara then joined the world of business. He says Basotho should strive to be entrepreneurs instead of relying on government for their daily needs. For Lesotho to succeed, it should “steal winning formulas from developed countries”. Of course, he looks no further than Japan for wisdom. “That is exactly what Japan did. Look where they are now,” he says.

Caswell Tlali

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