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From journalism to activism

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MASERU – THE Form E class at St John’s High school, in Mafeteng, had gone for several months without a mathematics teacher.

One day, a student stood in front of the class to say his piece.

His opinion however quickly veered into a ‘political’ speech.

He told the class that they had a right to education and being denied a mathematics teacher was an injustice they should fight.

And they should remember that they paid school fees, he said.

The students then summoned the principal to a meeting in their classroom.

The principal said he was a mathematics teacher and would take their classes.

But little changed for the class because the principal rarely made it to lessons.

Now incensed, the students called the principal to the class again.

As soon as he entered the class they closed the door and told him that they would detain him until he explained why he was not teaching them.

Leading the haranguing was the same boy who had made the rousing speech that encouraged the students to call the principal to the first meeting.

Several other students stood outside the door to block other teachers from coming.

The teacher was ‘released’ after a few minutes.

The boy who led the small revolution is Kananelo Boloetse, a freelance journalist who has just won a court judgement to nullify the government’s state of emergency and constitutional amendments passed after the parliament was recalled.

For Boloetse, that episode was not out of juvenile delinquency or youthful exuberance to get 15 minutes of fame.

“There was so much at stake for me,” Boloetse said on Tuesday, a day after the Court of Appeal dismissed the government’s appeal against the Constitutional Court ruling.

His fury was informed by his circumstances and love for mathematics. Boloetse was not born with a silver spoon.

His mother could not afford school fees for him and his two brothers.

Their fees were paid by their grandmother who was a primary school principal. His mother and father separated when he was nine.

Their father had been retrenched from the mines in South Africa and came back home to Mafeteng with almost nothing. With the family’s only source of income gone, the parents started quarrelling.

His mother packed her bags and left.

“It was just toxic,” he says of that time.

Boloetse, then nine, and his brothers were shipped off to live with their grandmother in Mohale’s Hoek. By the time they returned to live with their mother in Mafeteng, five years later after their father died, Boloetse had passed Grade Seven.

But the poverty he had left a few years earlier was still stalking the family.

His mother could not afford his fees and he had to wait three months for her grandmother to pay for his Form A.

That battle to remain in school would continue throughout high school as his grandmother struggled to pay fees for him and his brothers.

So when his Form E class went for months without a mathematics teacher Boloetse felt the school did not appreciate how his grandmother was sacrificing to keep him in school.

“By denying me maths lessons they were undermining my grandmother who was toiling to pay my school fees. They were cheating her, me, my fellow students and their parents.”

“It was an injustice.”

Boloetse also felt the school, and the principal, in particular, were sabotaging his career prospects.

“I planned to study accounting and mathematics was the key to that. Yet they were not getting us a maths teacher.”

Boloetse is not sure if their action as a class is what led the school to appoint a new mathematics teacher a few weeks later.

What matters is that he made it to the National University of Lesotho (NUL) to study marketing.

It is at college that he witnessed the power of activism. Together with his comrades in the Students’ Representative

Union, they won many battles against the government and university management.

“We had a voice and it was being heard”.

Boloetse did not know that the experience gathered and the bonds created in the students’ movement would have an impact in future.

He graduated in 2012 and joined a marketing company affiliated with Public Eye newspaper.

He says his foray into journalism started when the Public Eye editor would occasionally assign him to write stories for events he would have attended as a marketer.

When the marketing company folded, the editor invited him to join the newsroom and he quickly learned the craft.

He liked the idea of being impartial and objective. He kept his opinions out of stories.

But there were times when he felt his work as a journalist was not going far enough.

He would write stories he thought would change things but most were met with indifference by those whose conscience should have been pricked to make things right or change course.

He felt he was banging his head against a wall or flogging a dead donkey.

His investigative stories would expose wrongdoing but would not go as far as changing things.

The corrupt people he exposed either kept their jobs or flourished through their sleaze. The poor, whose plight he exposed, remained miserable

Journalists claim there is a wall between their profession and activism.
Although social media has chipped some bricks off that wall, journalists are largely correct.

Activists are opinionated and clear that their agenda is to influence or quicken the change they desire. Journalists, however, work under stringent ethical boundaries.

They should keep their views and emotions out of their stories.

They derive some satisfaction when stories have an impact but that is only secondary to the core business of informing, educating and entertaining.

Yet many journalists secretly wish they could do more to steer this in a certain direction.

They wish investigative stories on corruption would result in a cleaner government and force public officials to keep their hands off the cookie jar.

They want heads to roll and public officials to pay for their actions. At the very least, they want the public officials to explain themselves.

Boloetse was one such journalist.

An incident in 2018 made him cross the wall between journalism and activism.

He subscribed to a weekly internet bundle with his mobile service network.

When the bundle was exhausted within a few days the service provider started deducting the internet charges from his airtime.

Within hours and without prior warning his airtime had been gobbled.

This was the last straw for Boloetse.

He wrote to the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) complaining about the unfair practice. He told the LCA that the mobile network had no business deducting his airtime for internet services when his bundles were exhausted.

His use of the internet should be restricted to the bundle because that is what he subscribed to.

The implications of that letter were clear to both the LCA and his mobile service provider.

For the LCA it was a chance to whip mobile companies into line and redress a wrong that has been happening for years.

Boloetse was the first to officially complain about the practice but many others were sore about it. For the mobile service provider, Boloetse’s letter was a threat to profits.

Prepaid airtime is unlike bread or milk.

The airtime you buy on the streets doesn’t automatically translate into a sale for the mobile service provider. The sale is complete if you use the airtime and only then can the company record it as revenue.

This means the only time you grant the company permission to deduct your airtime is when you use its service. It’s the same concept for other prepaid utilities.

The sale between you and the power company is completed when you switch on the lights or plug.

By buying the bundle Boloetse had essentially restricted how much the company should deduct for internet services.

“Charging my airtime after the bundle was finished amounted to a violation of the agreement or even fraud,” Boloetse says.

The company called him to a meeting to discuss the issue after the letter to the LCA but he says “it was clear they had no justification for pinching his airtime”.

His employers were uncomfortable with his crusade because mobile companies are some of the major advertisers in the newspaper.

The LCA agreed with him and immediately instructed mobile companies to stop the practice. Boloetse had forced a regulator to protect customers and mobile companies to change the way they do business.

His actions changed the way Lesotho’s two million mobile service customers are charged.

Boloetse admits that he crossed the line between journalism and activism but can justify it.

“I am a citizen first and then a journalist. I was complaining to the LCA about an issue that affected me as a citizen and a customer,” he says.

He uses the same rationale to justify his complaints to the Ministry of Education about secondary school fees. For the past two years, Boloetse has been on a one-man campaign to push the government to make secondary education free.

“It doesn’t make sense that primary education is free and tertiary education is fully sponsored but secondary students have to pay fees.”

“It means we are saying it’s fine for our people to have primary education only because there is a premium on secondary education. It’s a deliberate policy to block the poor from tertiary education which is fully sponsored.”

Boloetse doesn’t pretend that he had no vested interest in this matter.

He wants to correct a government policy that almost blocked his way to high school.

“If it was not for my grandmother I would not have finished secondary school. I would not be where I am now. I see a lot of children who are going through what I went through.

I see myself in them and I feel I have an obligation to fight for them.”

It is the same obligation he felt a few weeks ago when he challenged the government’s decision to declare a state of emergency to recall parliament to pass the constitutional amendments for the reforms.

Boloetse felt the decision was illegal but did not have the money to file a court case to challenge it. Help came from friends he had met at the NUL.

Advocate Lintle Tuke, who became one of the applicants, agreed to handle the case pro bono.

Their efforts have paid off because the state of emergency has been nullified by a ruling that could also have serious implications on how the people interact with the government.

The judgement had opened the way for anyone to challenge a government decision based on public interest. This means nearly every citizen had the legal right to sue the government even if they were not directly affected by its actions.

The Court of Appeal endorsed that judgement this week when it dismissed the government’s appeal with costs. Boloetse is happy that the state of emergency has been nullified but says it is the court’s ruling on public interest that thrills him.

“This changes a lot. It means the government cannot use someone’s lack of legal standing to challenge a policy or decision.

It’s a victory for all people who want to see the government being held to account.”
Boloetse is 33 and works as a freelance journalist.

Staff Reporter

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Mahao, PS in big fight

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PRIME Minister Sam Matekane this week summoned the Basotho Action Party (BAP) executive committee in a bid to defuse simmering tensions within the party.
This comes amid fears that Professor Nqosa Mahao’s fallout with his principal secretary at the Ministry of Energy, Tankiso Phapano, could threaten the unity in the BAP and the government’s stability.

thepost can reveal that Mahao has hinted that he would resign if Matekane doesn’t fire or reassign Phapano.

But there are strong indications that Mahao doesn’t enjoy the backing of his executive committee and MPs in his fight with Phapano.

Inside sources this week told thepost that some members of the BAP’s executive committee and MPs are openly siding with Phapano and have been secretly lobbying Matekane to reshuffle Mahao from the Ministry of Energy to Sports.

A source said Mahao is aware of these manoeuvres, including a clandestine meeting in Maputsoe, and has said he would rather resign than be the subject of a humiliating reshuffle instigated by people he leads.

The source of the bad blood between Mahao and Phapano is not clear but it is understood that they have disagreed over tenders and the ministry’s direction.

The source said Matekane was first briefed of the running battles at the ministry some three weeks ago just as matters were coming to a head.

It is the second briefing which revealed a complete breakdown in the relationship that triggered Matekane’s meeting with the BAP’s executive committee and MPs on Monday.

Three people who were in that meeting said Matekane told the BAP officials to deal with the crisis before it affected the ministry and threatened the coalition government’s stability.

The BAP’s executive committee, including MPs and Mahao, then had a marathon meeting to discuss ways to make peace between Mahao and Phapano.

A source who was in that meeting said “it was clear to Mahao that the majority of the committee and the MPs were on Phapano’s side”.

“Mahao quickly realised that he did not have the backing of the majority and took a conciliatory approach. It was clear that the committee would rather have him resign than get Phapano removed from the ministry,” the source said.

“In the past Mahao had flatly refused to reconcile with Phapano because of seniority. But this time he appeared to be open to a meeting to discuss reconciliation.”

Both Mahao and Phapano told thepost last night that their relationship was still cordial. ‘“We are still in good books with Phapano until further notice,” Mahao said.

“However, we cannot predict the future.”

Mahao denied ever discussing Phapano’s dismissal or transfer with Matekane.

Phapano also insisted that he was working well with Mahao.

“We are still on good terms,” Phapano said, adding that the allegation that they were fighting was “baseless”.

The fallout between Mahao and Phapano has been quick and spectacular.

The two had been almost inseparable months before Mahao agreed to join the coalition government.

Phapano would use his car to drive Mahao around. They would attend party meetings together. Some party insiders saw Phapano as Mahao’s right-hand man and adviser.

Mahao allegedly strongly pushed for Phapano to be appointed as his principal secretary when he became energy minister.

But sources said Mahao started having second thoughts days after recommending Phapano and tried to get his appointment reversed but it was too late.

A source says within weeks Mahao was telling cabinet colleagues that Phapano had captured the ministry and he was unable to function as the minister.

“He started pushing to oust Phapano within days because they were already clashing. It’s been war from the first days,” said the source.

Staff Reporter

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How chicken import ban hit vendors

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MALESHOANE Pakela used to work at small backyard chicken farms where she was paid with chicken heads, necks, legs, and offals that she would roast and sell to factory workers at the Thetsane Industrial Area.

Her job was to clean and pack chicken.
The profit wasn’t much but just enough for the 37-year-old widow to feed and keep her four children in school.

“It also covered her monthly rental of M150 for a room in Ha-Tsolo Sekoting.

Her life was however shattered last October when the government imposed a ban on chicken imports from South Africa following an outbreak of bird flu.
Without day-old chicks the farms quickly shut down, cutting Pakela’s supply of heads, necks, legs, and offals.
Within a few days, her family was starving.

Pakela had been struggling even for months before the ban. The closure of the factories and retrenchments of thousands of workers has severely hit her sales. She was behind on her rent and could barely feed her children.

The partial lifting of the chicken ban has not helped Pakela because her former employers still cannot import day-old chicks or live birds.
Pakela and a family were kicked out of their rented room in November when their arrears were about M1 000.
She has found another room nearby.

A ‘Good Samaritan’ has allowed her to use a room for free until she can afford the rent. But Pakela says she still feels obliged to pay something because she understands that things are hard for everyone.

“Here the rent is still M150 but the landlord accepts every amount that I give her,” Pakela says.
There are days when her children go to bed hungry.

“I have told them (children) that if I have nothing they should accept (the status).”

She now survives on handouts from neighbours and other well-wishers. Pakela’s poverty is apparent.

Barefoot and holding her small child in a seshoeshoe dress, Pakela says her two children usually go to school without eating.
The other child has dropped out of school because she doesn’t have shoes.

’Mako Lepolesa, 44, who has been running a chesanyama (meat grill) at the Maseru West Industrial Estate since 2018. The father of three says his clients are mainly taxi drivers and factory workers.

Chicken was her main product until last October when the ban was imposed. It wasn’t long before his business started wobbling.

“I thought it would be just a short-lived problem (chicken import ban) but it passed on this year,” he says, adding that it might take months for his business to recover.
Moshe Ramashamole, 42, who also owns a chesanyama in the Maseru West Industrial Estate, tried to remain in business by sourcing chicken from local farmers.

It was a stopgap measure that however lasted a few weeks because the farmers also ran out of stock. He resorted to bad chicken but they were double the price of a full chicken before the ban.
Yet Ramashamole thought he could make it work by increasing the price of his plate from M35 to M55. The customers however resisted the new price and Ramashamole had to take the losses.

The poultry ban did not affect street vendors like Pakela alone.
Former Minister of Communications, Khotso Letsatsi, is one of those poultry farmers struggling following the chicken ban.

He ventured into poultry in January last year. It was an audacious venture that included a M100 000 investment in a shelter and other equipment.
He started with a batch of 300 chicks and had reached 1 000 by the time the ban was imposed.

“The business was lucrative,” Letsatsi says.

“I had to employ two people permanently to assist me on a full-time basis,” he says.

When it was time to slaughter the chickens, Letsatsi says he had to employ seven casual labourers.
Since the ban was imposed he had released all his workers.

“I do not know where they are now. Maybe they are starving,” he says of the workers he released.

Letsatsi doesn’t know how he will revive his business.
The Director of Marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS), Lekhooe Makhate, says the ban has been devastating to farmers and businesses.

“Some big businesses are going to declare less tax to the government because there was no business,” Makhate says.

He says Lesotho spends M2.1 billion on the importation of chicken and its products from South Africa every year.
But that amount usually soars to M4 billion depending on the market forces of demand and supply.

Makhate says the M2.1 billion goes to South Africa where the chicken and its products are imported.

At the height of the scarcity of chickens in the country, Makhate says people were supposed to make initiatives to travel to villages to search for chickens.

“There is not enough production of chickens in the country,” he says.
“Economically speaking we rely on South Africa. We have to be self-reliant.”

Majara Molupe

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Letseng fends off threat to sue

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LETŠENG Diamond says it is under no obligation to advertise jobs for Basotho to provide certain services “where it has the capacity to undertake the same services”.
Letšeng Diamond boss, Motooane Thinyane, was responding to a threat to sue by a little-known political party called Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES).

Matekane’s company, the Matekane Mining Investment Company (MMIC), had been providing blasting, haulage and drilling services at Letšeng mine since 2005.
The deal with the MMIC was terminated in December last year with the mining company saying it was improper because Matekane had now become a politician.

Letšeng Diamonds announced that it had reached an agreement with the MMIC to acquire its mining equipment at the mine and offered employment to its current employees in line with operational requirements.

“This will enable Letšeng to continue with its mining activities,” the company said in its statement.

This infuriated opposition parties that argued that the mine should have called interested Basotho companies to bid for the contract, saying it is provided for in the Minerals Act of 2005.

The leader of Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES), Molefi Ntšonyana, wrote the mine last week threatening to sue for allegedly failing to follow section 11 of the Act.
Ntšonyana argued that the Act “does not grant the Letšeng Diamond 100 percent to mine with its good own equipment” but it should engage Basotho companies like it did with the MMIC.

Ntšonyana said Letšeng Diamond and the MMIC made the agreement to acquire the MMIC equipment so that the mine could continue with its mining activities “without any advertisement to seek qualified Basotho to provide such services”.

Ntšonyana said the agreement unilaterally denied Basotho a chance to tender for such services and ignored the fact that the government of Lesotho on behalf of Basotho own 30 percent in the Letšeng Diamond.

“It is advisable to reconsider your decision,” Ntšonyana said, adding that they would also write to the mining board requesting the resolution they made regarding this matter of insourcing mining activities.

He said the company should adhere to section 11 of the Mines and Minerals Act of 2005 and within 14 working days the matter should be reconsidered, “failing which we will have no choice but to drag the company to the courts of law”.

In his response, Thinyane said Ntšonyana must “revisit the section in question in full for its correct interpretation”.

“Letšeng Diamond is under no obligation to advertise to seek qualified Basotho to provide services where it is willing and has the capacity to undertake the same services,” Thinyane said.

He said the decision relating to the agreement referred to has been through the necessary governance structures and is therefore procedural.
Thinyane said Letšeng is a corporate citizen that is fully compliant with the laws of Lesotho.

Majara Molupe

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