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Brace for a very bumpy year ahead

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There is something eerily sombre about this festive season. You see it in the unusually short queues in grocery and clothing shops around the country.
Businesses, formal and informal, are reporting that this is probably the worst festive season in recent memory. Customers say they are struggling to buy things they could afford during previous holidays.
It’s either they don’t have money at all or the little they have cannot go far.

The reasons are many and varied but three stand out.
The first is inflation which has triggered an unrelenting spike in prices this year. The surge in prices started during the Covid-19 crisis and has not stopped. Much of our inflation has been imported from across the Mohokare River.

The second could be the contagion effect from South Africa’s economic woes. As South Africa’s economy boils so does ours because of the strong links between the two.
The third is the job carnage that has ravaged the textile sector, the biggest private sector employer.

By some estimates, more than 10 000 people have lost their jobs this year. Add the thousands laid off at the peak of the Covid crisis and the figure easily adds to around 20 000. That is half of the sector’s jobs in the past three years. The depressing news has been assiduous.

In the past three weeks, 3000 more were left stranded after their employer surreptitiously closed their two factories and disappeared without paying severance packages.

Many companies across the country have quietly closed. Those remaining are barely surviving, living from day to day while hoping for a change in their fortunes.
Sadly, next year doesn’t look promising either. Barring some dramatic and robust intervention from the government, the textile sector is likely to continue hurtling down the precipice.

We could be witnessing the end of Lesotho’s textile sector as we have known it for the past forty years. The few companies that have been struggling to remain afloat could soon drown.

The looming drought will make the situation worse. Droughts tend to fuel inflation, stretching safety nets like the old age pension and food grants.
Salaries in both the private and public sectors will continue to trail the inflation gnawing at the little buying power that remains.

In other times, we could hazard that things will get better but we don’t see any signs of respite this time. All we can say is brace yourself for more misery.
This is not fear-mongering or fatalistic but a view informed by the unfolding reality.

We don’t see the government doing much to stimulate the economy. The textile factories that closed are dead and buried together with the jobs.
There is no mob of investors clamouring to set up shop in Lesotho. South Africa’s economy is far from finding the road to recovery.

Basotho like to think of themselves as hardworking, resilient and independent people. That is true. But this time many have hit rock bottom and need their government to step up to the plate.
We call on the government to help revive the textiles sector.

Struggling companies should be assisted to get back on their feet. The informal sector needs urgent help. Young entrepreneurs should be supported. The government should remove the regulatory hurdles that impede business.

The economy should be diversified and weaned off its dependence on South Africa. The government should do more for the economy.

They owe it to the people after they came to power on the strength of their business credentials and private sector experience.
They said they know what ails Lesotho’s economy, and now they should fix it.

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Stop the leaks

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IN our last week’s issue of thepost, we reported on a story of how the Examinations Council of Lesotho (ECOL) had withheld results of six schools following the leaking of examination papers.
The leaking of the examination papers is not just a criminal matter involving teachers and school principals. It goes to the very heart of our entire school system in Lesotho.

The implications for students and the education system are therefore huge. Once the integrity of our examination system is questioned, we risk ruining the future of thousands of students who might want to further their studies outside Lesotho’s borders.

Our universities and technical colleges might also end up recruiting students who do not necessarily deserve to be there. That would be disastrous.
It is precisely for these reasons that the police must get to the bottom of this embarrassing scandal. It is no small matter.

The police must channel enough resources to weed out the culprits and drag them before courts of law. Anything short of this would have serious implications for future generations.

The cost of failing to act against the culprits will be huge, in the long run.
We are shocked that teachers and some school principals were so brazen in their violation of the law when they leaked the examination papers.

They did not just allow the students to access the question papers way before the exams. But they went on and directly “coached” their students on how to answer certain questions.

At one school, we are told, students all had uniform responses to exam questions. What this scandal has proved is that the Examinations Council of Lesotho has a serious problem on its hands.
It will need to come up with a new, radical approach to stop the rot, or we will have to kiss the integrity of our exams goodbye.

Sadly, this is not the first time that we have reported about examination papers leaking in Lesotho. It has been a perennial problem that has been happening for years.
The tragedy is that the examinations authority has still not come up with a workable system to stop the leaks and effectively punish offenders. This is why we still have this problem bobbling around every year during exam times.

The big question we must all grapple with is: So what must be done?
ECOL, as the technocrats, must come up with fresh ideas to stop the rot.

Perhaps, what is happening in the education sector is a confirmation that we recruited the wrong people to manage and run our schools. We need men and women of integrity to run the system.

If any are identified as bad apples, by leaking exams, the Ministry of Education must be extremely ruthless at expelling such teachers and principals. That is because they would have sold their soul on the altar of expediency.

We need a new policy that weeds out offenders. That policy must be applied without mercy. Only when the ministry has punished offenders appropriately will we be able to see a stop to this madness.

The days of treating teachers and school principals with kid gloves should be over.

The leaking of exam papers is a criminal matter. It must be treated as such. Once the government takes the matter from that angle, then we will see a much more aggressive and serious attempt to stop the leaks.

 

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Tough times ahead for Lesotho

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ELSEWHERE in this issue, we carry a story of the rising and desperate levels of poverty in urban areas after thousands of factory workers were emptied on the streets in the last year or two.
We are aware that the textile sector has been in the doldrums for years. That crisis was worsened following the devastating Covid-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2022.

After decades of economic mismanagement, we are beginning to reap the bitter results of a spectacular failure to diversify our economy.
And so when the textile sector catches a cold, the whole economy falls into a tailspin. With no other solid sectors to stabilise the economy, we are in serious trouble as a country.

The textile sector, with about 35 000 workers, was the second biggest employer after the civil service. That sector, unfortunately now lies in ruins.
Over the last two years, we have watched helplessly as it suffered a devastating bloodbath with thousands of jobs being lost.
That was initially due to a drop in orders from the United States.

In a bid to stay afloat, the textile companies began resorting to laying off workers. The bloodbath has not stopped. More workers continue to be thrown onto the jobless heap.
Without jobs, people can no longer provide the basics for their families. The levels of poverty and desperation have suddenly increased.
But it is not just the factory workers who have been badly hit. Those who relied on the factory workers downstream have been hit too.

Think of the hundreds of landlords in Ha-Tsolo, next to the textile factories in Thetsane. As reported in this issue, the retrenched workers have since abandoned their rented apartments. Some have reportedly sought better opportunities in South Africa while others have gone back to their rural areas.

Without any steady income coming from the rentals, the landlords in Ha-Tsolo who housed textile workers, are in deep trouble. They too were relying on textile workers to eke a living. Now the goose that lay the golden eggs is no more.

Lesotho has a large segment of informal workers. Some of these make a living by selling foodstuffs on the streets in “open kitchens” by the roadside on in their car boots.
These hawkers are now on their knees.

All this points to a real crisis for Lesotho.
If there is anything that will pose a threat to social order in Lesotho, it is the desperate levels to which people are being subjected to. Without jobs, without a basic income to cushion them from poverty, we are likely to see an explosion of anger on the streets.

That is a scary scenario.
Prime Minister Sam Matekane is in an unenviable position as leader. Two years after his rise to the premiership, he must begin to think, fast, how his government can ameliorate this crisis.

Doing nothing cannot be an option. Neither is pointing fingers at previous regimes as the author of our misery. The people think it is him who is in power and he must sort this out.
The time of apportioning blame is over. The people are no longer interested in who caused the problem. All they want is a solution.

While the people were talking of Matekane in “messianic” terms, the reality is that the Prime Minister is no messiah. He is a man of flesh and blood just like all of us.
What he really needs is a team of technocrats to back up his vision with real action on the ground in pushing his transformation agenda.
Only then can his government begin creating the jobs that Basotho desperately need.

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The clock is ticking

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It’s been months since the passport crisis started and the government doesn’t seem to be anywhere near solving it. Instead, we have different explanations that come across as contrived excuses.
Last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs blamed the crisis on the Russia-Ukraine war which it said had affected the supply of chips required to produce e-passports.

This time the ministry says the delay is due to a clearing agency holding on to a batch of passports in South Africa.
Granted, all those explanations could have been correct at the particular times. True, the delay could be a combination of both. The shortage of chips could have created a backlog that was then worsened by the delay at the clearing agency.

Yet the trouble is that the government doesn’t fully explain why there is a delay at the clearing agency or whether the chips are now readily available.
Because the government appears to be economical with the details, the public is left to speculate out of frustration.
To calm and assure the public the government has to forthrightly answer the following questions: Why is the agent holding on to the passports?

Could it be because the agent is holding the passports over a current or previous debt? How many passports does the agent have now?
What is the government doing to expedite the delivery of the passports from Johannesburg?
And finally, when does it expect to solve this crisis once and for all?

As long as those questions remain unanswered, the ministry and the government will continue to be pilloried and accused of making false promises.
Whatever the problem, the government should deal with it. No amount of explanation or excuses will help the thousands of desperate Basotho stuck because they don’t have passports.

The backlog of passports was 42 000 at the last count but continues to rise because the government keeps accepting new applications.
We need not remind the government that the livelihoods and education of thousands of Basotho depend on passports. We believe it’s a fundamental right.
What makes the explanation for the crisis appear hollow is the fact passports are not the only basic good the government has consistently and dismally failed to deliver.
There are no number plates and drivers’ licences. The supply of basic medicines to public hospitals and clinics has been patchy for years. Police and chiefs don’t have stationery.

Livestock owners are not getting ownership documents. The shortage of basic livestock medication is perennial. Schools don’t get textbooks on time and sometimes students go for a whole year without them. Given this reality, it is not surprising that some, including this newspaper, are not fully convinced by the government’s explanation for the delay in passports.

It doesn’t appear that this is due to a hiccup. Rather, it could be systemic. There are too many delays to too many government services and goods.
Most of those delays were inherited from the past administration but that will not mollify angry Basotho.

It was precisely because it promised to solve these persistent problems that the government was elected into power. The people have a legitimate expectation by their government will deliver on their promises. Anything short of a complete delivery will be tantamount to betrayal.

The public’s frustration is building up and it might be only a matter of time before the people completely lose confidence in the government.
It would be tragic were the government to lose the massive goodwill it still enjoys merely because it would failed to resolve a key issue such as that of passports.
The clock is ticking.

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