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‘Clean up toxic politics’

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MASERU – LEBOHANG Thotanyana, the Basotho Action Party (BAP)’s secretary-general, has had a taste of both the government and the private sector. He knows the struggle of building a business from scratch in a country where access to capital and opportunities are hogged by a select few.

As a minister, he witnessed how vested interests sabotage government policies and hurt the poor. He has been on boards of private companies, parastatals as well as local and regional institutions.
What he has learned in all those positions is that nearly everything rises and falls on politics.

“Everything is political. If the politics of the country is wrong nothing much moves the government, even the private sector,” he says.

“Lesotho is in this mess because of a political culture and leadership whose toxic nature permeates every facet of our society, government, national institutions and private sector.”

Thotanyana says the “rotten political system has created an environment in which corruption, rent-seeking and patronage festers”.

“We now have a situation where everyone has to be in politics or be connected to political players to be part of the select few enjoying the national cake at the expense of the majority.”

“But as that cake continues to shrink even those eating more than their fair share start to feel threatened because they want it all for themselves”.

He says this explains the birth of the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), a party founded and dominated by some of the richest people in Lesotho.

“In essence, the entire private sector of Lesotho is now in politics because we have a system in which prosperity is based on either political office or political connections.”

“By joining active politics, the business people are confirming that the money is in politics. They are admitting that there is only one pot in this country and it is in politics.”

Thotanyana worries that once the lines between politics and business are blurred, corruption will intensify as those who make the policies are the ones who stand to benefit the most from them. The danger, he says, is that once in power the business people will turn the cabinet into a boardroom driven by profit rather than the people’s welfare.

“The rich people are not joining politics to serve the poor but to protect and shore up their interests.”

“We have entered a dangerous era in which those who have benefited from their political connections are now seeking to use the proceeds of their corruption and patronage to take the reins of power.”

“If business was more profitable than politics none of those rich people would invest their time and money to seek political office.”

He predicts a “disaster if the RFP becomes government because that would mean that money and political power are held by the same people”. The problem with that, Thotanyana opines, is that those same rich people have always used their money to influence the politics of the country to push and protect their personal interests.

“Only a few of them can claim to be self-made business people. The majority built their empires on their dealings with the government.”

“They helped corrupt the government but now claim they can help clean it up. Imagine what would happen when they now control the levers of power that helped them become rich?”

He says most of these in the RFP have continued to amass wealth through government connections even when the economy has been shrinking and the gap between the poor and the rich widened.

To illustrate this he points to the fact that Lesotho is ranked eighth among the most unequal societies. He says while the majority has been sinking in poverty, the few business people have become richer mainly because of government contracts.

“The same people who have benefited from a rigged system are now seeking to take over the system. We should be very afraid.”
Thotanyana believes the solution to the country’s ills is not the private sector joining the government but reforming the whole political system.

“You don’t reform politics by turning the private sector into a political party.”

He believes his BAP is better positioned to change the politics of this country. He says BAP wants to build a government “that puts Basotho first and is anchored in pro-poor policies”.

It is a message that the BAP has been trying to drive home even as the arrival of the RFP has drastically changed the political landscape ahead of the October elections.

Thotanyana says although money seems to have taken over Lesotho’s politics, meaningful change will come from political parties rooted in sound policies to grow the economy, rid the government of corruption and respect the rule of law.

The current government, he says, has failed to curb corruption and build a just society.

“The government is not meeting its obligations to both the masses and the business community. The civil service is polarised from the minister right to the lowest ranks.”

“No one is accountable. We want to be a government that gives Basotho opportunities and services without discrimination on any grounds.”

The former Minister of Mines says in addition to favouring a few local business people, successive governments have created an economy in which foreigners have a better chance of thriving than locals.

Basotho have been crowded out of small businesses that have always been ring-fenced for them. He says the governments have bastardised the meaning of foreign direct investment to mean any small capital that comes into the country.

The result, he explains, is that foreigners are opening bars, saloons and tuckshops in the name of foreign investment. At the same time, key sectors of the economy are still dominated by foreign-owned conglomerates that do very little to promote local entrepreneurs.

Thotanyana points to the retail sector which he says is dominated by the South Africans and Asians.

“Lesotho is not growing because it has surrendered its manufacturing capacity to foreign companies. Because we have not built our industries, we have to rely on imports”.

He says the tide of imports extends beyond manufactured products. It frustrates him that Lesotho still imports cereals, meat, eggs, dairy products and vegetables. This, he argues, is not because Basotho are not farming.

“It’s just that the marketing system is rigged in favour of imports. The retailers are not compelled to buy local because there are no regulations to support such policies. The Covid-19 pandemic showed that we are helplessly beholden to imports.”

He says the dominant retail shops are allowed to get away with lame excuses to avoid supporting local farmers.

“They will tell you about standards and packaging. Yet we all know that they don’t apply the same standards when it comes to South African farmers.”

“If the government limits imports, the retail shops will be forced to buy local. It is through their support that the farmers can attain the standards they demand.”

He however admits that for that to happen the government should support farmers to scale up their operations and build the value chain. He says subsidies will help but the real solution lies in improving the farmers’ access to finance. Thotanyana is sceptical that the commercial banks will support local farmers.

He notes that even after measures to help Basotho acquire the collateral and identity documents, and credit information – all crucial to getting loans – banks are still shunning local farmers and entrepreneurs.

“But ten years later their lending to the local market has not changed. They are still lending to a select few. An ordinary Mosotho will not get funding from the commercial banks.”

“This is why the BAP government will create a development bank. Most African countries have such banks because commercial banks do not support local investors. It’s particularly urgent in

Lesotho because the commercial banks are controlled from South Africa.”

He wants to see the Basotho Enterprise Development Corporation (Bedco) playing a bigger role in funding and nurturing businesses. He is however quick to point out that funding alone will not guarantee the success of local businesses.

“We will train artisans through technical colleges to bridge the skills gap. Part of the reason we have high unemployment is due to our unhealthy fixation with degrees. We should be doing more to equip our people with practical skills.”

“Today the government has so many vacancies that cannot be filled because we don’t have people with the right skills.”

Thotanyana says the success of these policies will however depend on building a strong party that will be stable enough to last in government. The BAP, he says, is not only deepening its roots in the communities but also strengthening its structures and procedures to avoid the pitfalls of internal strife that have felled other parties.

He believes that internal squabbles are about processes and procedures.

“The other cause of disputes is that people create artificial challenges because of self-interests. Whenever there is self-interest the outcome will always be disputed.”

“We also have to understand that Lesotho’s problems are caused by a battle for the limited resources. When the resources and opportunities are few, people fight for political office because they believe that gives them access.”

“This is a result of our failure to grow the economy and expand the national cake”.

Staff Reporter

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A night of horror

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THE police arrived in Ha-Rammeleke, a Mokhotlong village, in the middle of the night.
They stormed one house and found a couple sleeping.

They then dragged the man out and ordered him to follow their instructions if he didn’t want to be killed. Their order was that he should scream while announcing to his neighbours that his wife was gravely ill. The villagers who responded to the man’s plea for help didn’t know that they were walking into a trap.

The police rounded them up as they arrived at the man’s house.

Their night of horror has just begun.

Dozens of men and women were frog-marched to the edge of the village.

The police assaulted the men with sticks and whips. They kicked others.

In the crowd was Tebalo Lesita, a 48-year-old Rastafarian with dreadlocks.

He was called to the front and ordered to act like a Rastafarian.

First, they said he should sing Reggae while shaking his head so that his dreadlocks would wave from side to side. He did and they laughed.

“They also ordered me to mimic Lucky Dube.”

Lesita says he only shouted like he was singing because, due to fear, all Lucky Dube’s songs he knew had slipped out of his mind.

“I just mumbled some words as if I was singing. I have never experienced such torment before.”

“I only kept saying ‘Ye ye ye!’”, he says.

They laughed again.

Meanwhile, the police were hurling insults at him.

“I was told that I was smelling rubbish in the mouth.”

Lesita says the police then instructed him to act as if he was having sex.

And when he said he was tired of the act the police ordered him to act as if he was ejaculating.

He did and his tormentors roared with laughter.

The police, Lesita says, wanted him and other villagers to confess that they knew men who had shot and killed a man earlier in the village.

Lesita says after the ordeal that lasted nearly an hour the police ordered him to pray. He claims his body is full of bruises, especially on the buttocks.

“My body is aching all over.”

Lesita says he wants to sue the police but doesn’t know where to start.

“I understand that my human rights have been grossly violated but I do not know which legal steps to follow,” he says.

A week after the assault, he still hasn’t sought medical help.

Nor has he opened a case against the police.

“I find it impossible to open the case against them. I will have to go to the police station to open a case,” he says.

“How can I open the case against the police at the police station?”

As a sheep farmer, Lesita says he cannot afford the taxi fare to travel to Mapholaneng to report a case at Tlokoeng Police Station.

Lesita says he cut his dreadlocks a day after the incident “because they have put me into serious problems”.

“I rue the day that I started growing those dreadlocks,” he says.

Police spokesman, Senior Superintendent Kabelo Halahala, confirmed that there was a police operation in Mokhotlong but said he didn’t know how it unfolded.

Incidents of the police terrorising villagers under the guise of fighting or investigating crimes are common in Lesotho.

It is rare for police officers involved in such incidents to be arrested or prosecuted.

Majara Molupe

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Anger over Chinese businesses

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FORMER Mining Minister, Lebohang Thotanyana, says Lesotho is shooting itself in the foot by allowing Chinese companies that win major construction tenders to import everything from China.

Thotanyana was speaking at the Basotho Business Empowerment Forum on Tuesday.

The forum was organised by the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) Association.

Thotanyana told the forum that of all the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) countries, Lesotho is the one benefitting the least from hiring Chinese-owned companies for major infrastructure projects. 

 

Thotanyana said Chinese companies tend to “import everything save menial labour” in every government job they win.

 

“We only benefit minimally with the labour force,” Thotanyana said, adding that “more money goes back to the countries that have brought their own machinery”.

 

“This is exactly what is happening at the Polihali Dam which is under construction.” 

 

“There should be a value chain so that the economy grows.”

 

Tempers flared at the forum as local business owners accused the government of failing to protect them against Chinese businesses. 

 

The forum revealed the growing frustration among local business owners who feel the government is not doing enough to protect them against Chinese business muscling them out of sectors reserved for them. 

 

The local business owners criticised the government for failing to implement the Business Licensing and Registration Act 2019 that reserves certain businesses for indigenous Basotho. 

 

They told the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Trade, Thabo Moleko, together with a handful of MPs in attendance, that their patience had worn out.

 

“We want our business from the Chinese and Indians,” Thobei Motlere, the president of the MSME Association said.

 

“We are not afraid of these Chinese,” he added, adding that they could approach them head-on.

 

“We want to see the Act implemented now, not tomorrow or any other time. We want to push them out of the business peacefully. We want peace.”

 

Motlere said they have been pushed out of business by the Chinese yet there is a law to protect them “against unfair competition”.

 

“We have elected you as MPs but you are doing nothing to save us from the competition yet there is a law in place,” Motlere said.

 

The MPs tried to respond to some of the issues people but they were booed and heckled. 

 

“This is not the right place to answer. You should address this in parliament, not here,” said one woman in the crowd. 

 

Some MPs walked out of the forum in protest but were eventually coaxed to return to their chairs. 

 

’Maremi ’Mabathoana, a street vendor, said the Chinese sell almost every item.

 

“We buy from their shops so that we can sell small items. But the Chinese also sell small items,” ’Mabathoana said.

 

“When we sell a sweet for M1, they sell it for 50c,” she yelled.

 

“When we sell apples for M4, the Chinese sell them for M2. This is unfair.”

 

Moeketsi Motšoane, the Mafeteng MP who is the chairman of the parliament’s Natural Resources committee, said he is also facing similar challenges in his home district.

 

Trying to calm the irked traders, Motšoane said he could bet that some people were being used by the Chinese to kick Basotho out of business.

 

“There are such people amongst you who are being used by the Chinese to knock Basotho out of business,” Motšoane said.

 

He told the Ministry of Trade to move swiftly to implement the Act.

 

“If you do not implement the Act, we will drag you before the committee to account,” he said.

 

 Moleko, the principal secretary of Trade,  promised to implement the law. 

Majara Molupe

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Labour unions in nasty fight

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TWO trade unions representing workers at Polihali Dam construction site have turned on each other.
Instead of fighting for better pay and conditions for members, the Construction, Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers (CMQ) and the Lesotho Workers Association (LEWA) are locked in a nasty battle that could be linked to a fight over membership.

CMQ alleges that LEWA officials intimidated its members who wanted to vote for a proposed strike against companies working at Polihali Dam.

CMQ also accuses LEWA’s secretary general, Hlalefang Seoaholimo, of conflict of interest which it says renders him unable to effectively represent workers in their battles against employers in Polihali.

CMQ says Seoaholimo is working as a union leader and an employer at the same time. This, CMQ says, is because Seoaholimo’s company, Domino Blasting (Pty) Ltd, has been subcontracted by some companies working at Polihali Dam.

The allegations of intimidation and conflict of interest are part of the letter that CMQ’s secretary general, Robert Mokhahlane, has written to the Registrar of Trade Unions.

In that letter, seen by thepost, Mokhahlane pleads with the Registrar of Trade Unions to deregister LEWA over the alleged intimidation and Seoaholimo’s conflict of interest.

Mokhahlane tells the registrar that because of Seoaholimo’s shareholding in Domino Blasting, LEWA has “characteristics of a company, not a trade union”.

“At Polihali Dam construction, there (were) workers who were employed by Domino Blasting Services at various projects,” Mokhahlane alleges.

“They (Domino Blasting) have a long list of projects that have references and include some companies involved in the construction of Polihali Dam.”

Seoaholimo is one of Domino Blasting’s four directors and holds 300 of the 1000 shares in the company.

Mokhahlane tells the registrar that Seoaholimo cannot claim to be independently fighting for workers’ rights when his company is working with the same companies accused of unfair labour practices in Polihali.

He also accuses Domino Blasting’s human resource officer, Mpho Kanono, of being conflicted because she is also an official of the United Textile Employees (UNITE).

“Both the two officials (Seoaholimo and Kanono) are workers’ representatives within the Wages Advisory Board whereby Hlalefang Seoaholimo is the spokesperson of the workers,” Mokhahlane says.

Mokhahlane also accuses Seoaholimo of “intimidating workers who will be balloting for a strike action by encouraging LEWA members to observe and identify workers” who would participate.

He claims that Seoaholimo mocked a CMQ official who was mobilising workers for the strike at the construction site.

The Labour Code, which the registrar has been asked to invoke, says a union or employers’ organisation may be cancelled by the Labour Court on the registrar’s application.

Seoaholimo has however vehemently refuted allegations that his company is working at Polihali Dam. He told thepost that CMQ is in a campaign to tarnish his name and that of LEWA because “they are aware that workers do not want to join their union”.

He admits that he is a shareholder in Domino Blasting but insists that “as we speak now Domino Blasting does not have a job anywhere in Lesotho”.

“CMQ has to provide evidence that a company called Domino Blasting (Pty) Ltd is working and has any employees in Polihali,” Seoaholimo said.

“Domino Blasting does not even have an office anywhere in the country because it is not working anymore.”

“They should identify the people hired by Domino Blasting (Pty) Ltd among workers in Polihali.”

He said the company has not operated in Lesotho since 2016 when it completed a project. Seoaholimo, however, says he is aware of a South African company with a similar name working in Polihali.

“I as a person have nothing to do with that company,” Seoaholimo said.

He said it is true that Mpho Kanono used to work for Domino Blasting back in 2016 when it still had contracts but she has since left because “the company stopped working”.

“Mpho Kanono is an official of UNITE and has nothing to do with Domino Blasting at present moment.”

Staff Reporter

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