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Litmus test for Lesotho

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THE launch of Mon Foods Farm and Abattoir last week could be a game-changer for Lesotho.
The launch comes at a time when the government of Lesotho is aggressively pushing to economically empower Basotho.

For the record, we wish to state that in principle, we are not opposed to the new regulations that seek to empower locals in business.
We would like to believe that the new chicken venture will be a litmus test for Lesotho as to whether we have the intellectual gravitas and aptitude to run massive projects of this nature.

The whole idea in setting up such a project is to empower Basotho and achieve the dream of economic independence.
As we have argued on this page in previous editorials, we find it extremely unacceptable that 50 years after independence we still rely on our more prosperous neighbour, South Africa, for our basic foodstuffs.

It is an embarrassment that, 50 years after independence, we still import everything from eggs to cabbages for our basic needs.
To put that into perspective, take for instance what happened in 2007. That year, Lesotho imported 5 400 000kgs of chicken from South Africa.
That figure ballooned to 20 000 000 kgs in 2014.
That is staggering.

That is why we think new business ventures like the one launched last week must be supported to cut our over-reliance on South African imports.
However, these new players on the market will need massive support from the government or they will collapse.
These new businesses will need access to ready markets. They will need access to cheap loans from the banks to grow their businesses.

We believe with such support, new ventures such as Mon Foods will quickly assert themselves on the market and give established South African companies a run for their money.
Yet in seeking to empower Basotho economically, the government must exercise caution.

The new controversial regulations announced last month to block foreigners from certain businesses are a case in point. After further perusal of the regulations, we think they are too draconian and need to be watered down.
Lesotho is fortunate that it is trying to implement these regulations at a time when such programmes have been tried elsewhere before. The results have been dismal. We know that history is a great teacher and we must learn from it, lest we plod on, with disastrous consequences.

Uganda, under Idi Amin, drove away the Asians in the 1970s. Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe drove away the whites from the farms ostensibly to empower the black majority.
The results in both instances were calamitous.
We must learn from history about these failed indigenisation programmes. In most instances, such empowerment programmes have collapsed spectacularly.

Instead of generating jobs for the locals, empowerment programmes if applied wrongly, can trigger massive capital flight.
We also have a problem with the M2 million capital threshold that the government is pushing. That figure looks frighteningly too high. Most SMMEs were started with far less money than M2 million.

The point is that starting a business has nothing to do with the amount of cash one has; what matters is whether one has a sellable idea that can translate into a successful enterprise.
We would like to believe that the government needs every hand on the deck to grow Lesotho’s economy. That will not happen as long as we seek to close space for business.

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Co-option tactics for self-preservation

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Prime Minister Sam Matekane this week appointed new ministers and deputy ministers in a move critics say is meant to ring-fence his coalition government.

The appointments came as Matekane battled a serious plot in parliament to boot him out and upend his government.

The decision will see Cabinet ballooning from the current 14 ministers to 19. A new batch of deputy ministers are set to be sworn-in soon.

The expansion of Cabinet was in response to a serious plot by opposition MPs to pass a vote-of-no-confidence in his government.

With his back to the wall, Matekane has been left with no option but to co-opt some political parties that were willing to work with him.

That has now seen former sworn enemies joining hands in an expanded Cabinet.

While we understand that this was a political reflex response for self-preservation on the part of Matekane, and that he has clearly outwitted his political opponents, the move to expand Cabinet will come at a heavy cost.

The new ministers will receive perks, including vehicles, in line with their new positions.

The new deputy ministers will also receive similar perks as well.

This will likely put a strain on the fiscus.

Critics have been quick to lash out at Matekane, pointing to his swift policy shift with regards to the size of Cabinet.

This is particularly true because just a year ago on his campaign trail, Matekane had pledged to appoint a lean Cabinet if he were to assume power.

It was on the back of those electoral promises that Matekane had stuck to his word when he appointed a 14-member Cabinet in October last year.

But even at 19 ministers, Matekane’s Cabinet still remains comparatively smaller to those that were appointed by his predecessors.

Through the process of co-option, Matekane appears to have dogged the bullet. He will now likely have enough allies within parliament to ride past any impending no-confidence motion raised by the opposition.

This is politics. Matekane appears to have outwitted his political opponents who had celebrated his looming departure prematurely. It is now back to the drawing board for the opposition.

With Professor Nqosa Mahao’s Basotho Action Party (BAP) and Mothetjoa Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) now on board, this means Matekane will need to manage competing interests among a host of coalition partners.

We know that a failure to manage competing interests has been the downfall of many of the coalition governments in Lesotho since 2012. This will likely test Matekane’s political dexterity.

With Matekane enjoying a healthy cushion in parliament and with the plot to oust him now apparently neutralised, he should get his hands on the plough and move swiftly to ensure the reforms agenda is realised.

While Matekane pushes the reform agenda, the people on the ground want to see real economic transformation. They want to see the government go all out of support the private sector so that it can create jobs for thousands of unemployed youths.

Having survived the plot in parliament, this in our opinion will be Matekane’s biggest test.

The key will be in strengthening key sectors such as agriculture, education, health and tourism. Matekane will be judged by how many jobs his government creates to allow youths to have meaningful lives. If he fails, voters will likely punish him in the ballot box at the next polls in 2027.

He would have none but himself to blame. That is precisely why we have argued in our previous editorials that Matekane must be given a chance to rule for the next five years. If he fails, he would have failed on his own.

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Allow politicians to sort out mess

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AFTER last week’s shocking press conference, we expected the security agencies to either walk back their politically charged talk or simply walk away to let the politicians sort their mess.
We hoped the security bosses would realise the consequences of their bellicose statements and extricate themselves from the unfolding political fracas.
We thought after some introspection, informed by our traumatic history of political instability and the army dabbling in politics, the army would remember their neutral role is to defend and protect the nation.

If not history, then the instant and resounding condemnation of their statements should have hastened their return to talk that reflects their constitutional mandate. We are disappointed to say we were wrong.

Lieutenant General Mojalefa Letsoela’s latest remarks however show that the army is digging in on its stance on the political discord that has gripped the country.
He said he would not “manage” to transfer the country’s flag and constitution to another prime minister.

“Am I clear?” Letsoela asked his officers.
“Yes sir!” his officers chorused.

His message doesn’t require fancy decoding skills.
He was referring to his symbolic but pertinent role of the army commander handing over the flag and constitution to a new prime minister.

He seems to suggest that there will be no transfer of power in the event of the incumbent prime minister losing the imminent vote of no confidence. That is quite an unnerving statement.

We should be very afraid because those statements have shoved Lesotho onto the precipice. The political clouds are thick with fear, uncertainty and anger.

And things could boil over on the streets. We don’t need reminding what happens when the army appears to close avenues for democratic expression. Parliament is the only platform through which politicians can express themselves and decide the course of a government.

But when the army appears to interfere with that process we have a constitutional crisis in a highly combustible situation.

Even mere threats to do so are equally dangerous and ominous because perception matters in political affairs.

We appreciate that the commander, like many other Basotho, is weary and wary of the politicians’ propensity to topple governments on the whim.

We share his frustration at the power-mongering that has repeatedly shoved Lesotho into political instability and sabotaged its economic fortunes.

But the trouble is that there are some things he cannot say because of his uniform. The office he holds dictates that he be neutral and measured in expressing views about the political situation. The people expect that as well as the leader of their army. The condemnation of his words and the fear they triggered is therefore justified.

It’s however not too late for the army and other security agencies to stay clear of the political high drama.
Our politicians should be left to sort out the mess they have created.

They appear to have the means and will to do so.
Whether their solution is long-lasting or they have the competence, is another matter.
We should accept democracy with its thorns and flowers.

What is happening in parliament is a sign of a robust democratic culture.
It must not be impeded. This is nothing new and it should be allowed to run its course.

The army should resist the temptation to meddle in this process.
The shrill of protests from the civil society and the opposition has confirmed that the army is not welcome in this drama.

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Business deal must be clearly explained

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FOR the past few weeks, we have watched closely as Basotho fiercely argued among themselves after a South African business tycoon, Mashudu Elias Ramaano, ventured into these shores to set up a controversial water and hydrogen project.

There have been charges that much of the debate that has taken place around the project has been driven by sheer ignorance if not outright xenophobic expressions.

Ramaano, a South African, has not helped matters by adopting what appears to be a toxic, arrogant tone in addressing Basotho when he appeared before a parliamentary committee this week.
His abrasive style of communication was certainly going to rub people the wrong way.

While there might be some grain of truth in the not so welcoming business environment in Lesotho and the difficulties in registering a business, it is the manner that he has put across his views that appears to have offended Basotho.

The problem is that real issues have now been buried in the emotions following his outbursts.
While Ramaano might have a brilliant business idea, he still needs to calmly explain away the issues that make Basotho uncomfortable.

What has brought this stance is the lack of openness surrounding the hydrogen deal. There are also fears that the deal could end up benefiting private individuals at the expense of Basotho.
It is these issues that Basotho want clarified.

It is in Ramaano and the government’s interests not to look at this whole debate from a political perspective.
While most of the noise has so far come from politicians, it must be pointed out that most Basotho also share similar fears. They are generally skeptical of foreign businesses having burnt their fingers in the past.

The Fraser Solar deal where Lesotho risks losing millions of maloti to a foreign company is still fresh in their minds. Under the deal, government ministers signed off Lesotho’s assets, putting at risk the future of millions of Basotho.
Basotho would certainly not want to see a repeat of what happened under the Fraser deal. This is what is driving their current fears.
Basotho should also not be faulted for trying to protect one of their biggest assets – water. Water – which has been dubbed “Lesotho’s white gold” – is one of the few things that they have in abundance.

It is within their interests that they want this critical resource protected so that it benefits ordinary Basotho and the next generation.
It would be sad were politicians to mortgage the future of this country to a few private players under the guise of foreign investment.

While these fears might be exaggerated, it is incumbent upon Metsi ke Bophelo and the government of Lesotho to clearly explain the terms of the deal to remove any lingering doubts. Basotho deserve to be told what is in the deal for them. Once they have their buy-in, we are confident that they will back the deal.
So far, the government’s communications machinery and Metsi ke Bophelo’s public relations arm have not been convincing enough in explaining away Basotho’s fears. The opaque nature of the deal still looms large in the minds of Basotho.

It is for these reasons that they will need to enunciate clearly the terms of the deal.
Basotho are still not clear if Metsi ke Bophelo is a private company or a non-profit organisation.
Of course, this could be a brilliant idea that could haul Lesotho out of deep poverty. But it is an idea that must be clearly explained to ensure it has the buy-in of Basotho.

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