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Fresh headache for Thabane

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MASERU – PRIME Minister Thomas Thabane faces a fresh headache over how to deal with the conflicting expectations of different stakeholders in the country, all of whom banked on him to improve their lot. By last night the government was still trying to put out the fires torched by its decision to hike the taxi fares by 50 percent on Monday and then beating a hasty retreat 24 hours later after howls of protests from the public and some senior government officials.

The taxi fare debacle comes as labour unions are piling pressure on the government to review the minimum wage. Unions have already rejected a seven percent increase and are demanding a M2 000 minimum wage to be topped up with an annual increase. The new pay levels have not been announced as unions, the government and businesses haggle over the figures. And agreement does not appear to be within reach yet.

While the public is screaming over taxi fares and factory workers are demanding more businesses have been pleading poverty, claiming that they are already in choppy waters because of the depressed economy. The Water and Sewerage Company (Wasco) wants to review water tariffs by 12 percent for domestic users and 15 percent for companies. The Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) is asking for a staggering 21.3 percent increase on power tariffs. Reactions to those tariff proposals have been icy with both the public and business seeing them as too steep.

Complicating matters is that the government has already awarded a 4 percent salary hike for its employees. This came at the same time as the government’s one percent increase on Value Added Tax that has led to a surge in prices. In the middle of this fiasco is Thabane’s coalition government which promised to review salaries and address the concerns of the taxi operators. Pleasing all stakeholders would require masterful maneuvering. The immediate problem for the government is the looming battle with public transport owners over taxi fares.

On Monday, the Minister of Public Works and Transport, Prince Maliehe, announced a 50 percent hike on taxi fares, triggering howls of protest from the public and some senior officials in government. On Tuesday, Maliehe retreated in the face of public anger and opposition from within government. This time he said the implementation of the new fares recommended by the Road Transport Board would be suspended temporarily. That calmed nerves in the public and the government but attracted the wrath of transport operators who believe the minister is shifting goalposts at their expense.

A crunch meeting of the government and the transport owners is set for today but taxi operators say they will not accept anything less than the M1 per kilometre initially announced. There is palpable anger among taxi operators who feel the government has kept the lid on the taxi fares for too long. Mokete Jonase, president of Maseru Region Taxi Operators, said the minister or the Cabinet has no power to reverse the decision. That power, Mokete says, is vested with the Transport Board. Mokete was adamant that they are still going to implement the new prices.

“The letter has been written to the transport board and not to us,” Jonase said. Limema Phohlo of Bochabela Transport Operators Region also insisted that they will stick to the new prices. We just want to hear what the government will say, Phohlo said. UNITE Secretary General Qamaka Ntšene said given the proposed water and power tariffs, and the impending taxi fare hike, it is clear that factory workers will be squeezed hard. He said the factory workers who were already struggling to pay M6 will be doomed if it’s increased to M10. “If we do not act it will be a disaster,” he said.

An equally disgruntled Independent Democratic Unions of Lesotho (IDUL) secretary general, Mei Rathakane, said an increase in taxi fares will hit workers hard because the Ministry of Labour and Employment has already confirmed a seven percent increase for factory workers. “This is going to affect workers badly as the minister also failed to increase salaries to M2000,” he said. Rathakane also said they had a meeting with Prime Minister Thomas Thabane last week where they discussed salary increments. He said Thabane told them that they would get a response this week as the board has recommended M2 000 as a basic salary for the factory workers.

“We are yet to have a meeting with other trade unions to discuss this issue. It is unfortunate that factory workers voted Thabane into power but they are still struggling,” he said. Nkareng Letsie from Consumer Protection Association (CPA) said consumers are already struggling to make ends meet. Letsie said it is an undeniable fact that the taxi operators are struggling and that M10 is unjustifiable. Letsie said Botswana has just reviewed its taxi fares to 5 Pula, which is equivalent to M6.50.

“Botswana transport owners still believe that they are going to make profits,” he said. Maliehe said the initial fare was increased with the interest of both the commuters and taxi operators in mind. “For the past five years, the law has not been followed as it states that every year prices should be reviewed,” he said. The minister said the law gives him power to mediate where there are disagreements. “This is what l have done for the benefit of both Basotho and the transport operators,” Maliehe said.

Some government officials openly disagreed with Maliehe, who is also the ABC deputy leader. He was challenged on air by Basotho National Party (BNP) spokesman Deputy Home Affairs Minister, Machesetsa Mofomobe. Mofomobe said the poor will not afford the new fares. Alliance of Democrats (AD) spokesperson Thuso Litjobo also objected to the decision.

Nkheli Liphoto

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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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