MASERU-It’s Monday morning in the bus stop area. The streets are buzzing.
The multitudes of people who have been forced to stay in their homes during the Covid-19 lockdown are back on the streets. So are the street vendors whose stalls are scattered across this crowded area where you can get anything from seedlings to pesticides.
They will sell you new and second-hand clothes. For the shoe cobblers and tailors enter the sheltered market area. The carpenters are making tables and chairs by the corner.
Battery-powered shaving machines are ploughing through heads and chins in shacks along the streets opposite the Pitso Police Station.
A whiff of roasted meat is coming from the street kitchens. Fresh vegetables, cosmetics, belts, shoes, jeans and fruits dominate the stalls. There are little boys peddling trinkets and offering parking space.
In the shacks down the street you can get medicine for STIs, headaches, rashes, backaches, arthritis, diabetes and asthma. Some claim to treat cancer.
Others say they specialise in potions to bring back lost lovers, save broken marriages, help keep evil spirits at bay and make students pass tests.
And since the end of lockdown some are hawking herbs they claim treat the Covid-19.
At any given time there could easily be more than 500 vendors in this area of about a square mile or so. They are not making millions of Maloti but just a little to get by.
They eat what they kill. It is from their stalls that thousands of families are fed.
Take that away from them and their families will sink into destitution.
Incidentally, that is what happened in March when the government imposed the Covid-19 lockdown that kept both the buyers and the customers at home for two months.
Barred from their stalls, most vendors quickly ate the little groceries they had hurriedly bought with the little savings they had before the lockdown.
Then as weeks passed, without incomes, they started using what has always been their stock money to buy food.
When that ran out they borrowed from friends, relatives and illegal moneylenders. Many of them were in debt by the time the lockdown was eased a few weeks ago. Now nearly half of them have failed to revive their businesses and might not return to the streets anytime soon.
Tšolo Lebitsa, the Chairman of Khathang Tema Baitšukuli, an association of street vendors, says four in every ten vendors are “stuck at home with no funds to restart their businesses”.
The import of this is staggering.
Before the lockdown there were about 8 000 registered vendors working across Maseru.
Lebitsa, himself a vendor, admits that this figure might be grossly understated due to lack of reliable and up to date statistics.
Going by his numbers it means about 3 200 vendors have lost their livelihoods in the past three months. Those are men and women who have lost their jobs. And in most cases it is the only job they know.
But it is not only them who are in dire straits.
The average size of a family in Lesotho is five (two parents and three children), according to some demographic studies. That means the 3 200 vendors out of work are bread earners for 16 000 people.
Yet that appears to be a conservative estimate that doesn’t tell a complete story of the impact of the job losses among the vendors. Each vendor is probably sustaining their parents in the rural areas and other families.
There are also orphans left by sisters, brothers, uncles and aunties. Add those and the numbers of dependants for each vendor spikes to bring the number of those affected to, say, tens of thousands. And those numbers are only for Maseru.
Lebitsa doesn’t know the exact number of vendors in Lesotho and says he cannot even hazard a guess. He says his association has 28 000 registered members across the country.
If we use his estimate that 40 percent of these members are out of it the number of those who have lost their jobs jumps from 3 200 to 11 200 and the number of people affected increases from 16 000 to 56 000.
Factor in their dependents and the number of people affected could easily run into hundreds of thousands.
The Ministry of Small Businesses says it doesn’t have the total number of vendors because “it’s tough to split the small businesses according to their line of work”.
What they have however is the number of small businesses which the Ministry’s principal secretary, Lerata Pekane, puts at around 118 000.
That is around the same figures revealed by the Finscope Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survey of 2016.
In the survey Finscope, a financial research firm, was assessing the impact of MSMEs on Lesotho’s economy.
The survey showed that there were 118 130 MSMEs, of which just under 14 000 were classified as formal because they were either registered for tax purposes or were paying rent to a council.
The remainder is considered informal because they don’t pay tax or rent. They are also largely unbanked.
Pekane describes MSMEs as the backbone of the economy and the biggest employer.
“They don’t make a lot of money in terms of the contribution to the economy but they employ and feed more people than big companies,” he says.
Whether formal or informal, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis is largely the same across the small companies.
The devastating effects of the lockdown on street vendors, the smallest of small businesses, is apparent in the bus stop area, even as the area appears to be still bustling.
Vendors here tell of colleagues who haven’t returned to work.
Some stalls, even those rented from the city council, are still empty. The story of how they used all the money during the lockdown and cannot restock appears to be the same across the country.
Even those who have cobbled up enough to return to the stalls say their stock is way lower than it was before the lockdown.
“The lockdown was so sudden that it did not give anyone a chance to save. The businesses that were already ailing before the lockdown are now gone,” says Lebitsa.
Unlike the formal businesses that can easily get loans, vendors have to rely on comradeship and cooperation among themselves for credit. Comradeship means you can borrow a hundred or two from your neighbour when you are in a cash squeeze. Tomorrow it will be your turn to seek help. That way the vendors keep each other in businesses.
Cooperation means you can borrow from a small group of people who make small contributions to a purse every day. For instance 10 people contribute M100 from their daily sales to make M1 000 which they give to one member.
It’s a revolving fund of sorts based on trust. Members rarely default because it’s what keeps both their families and businesses going.
But since they returned from the lockdown those ingenious survival tactics have not been working well. Friends and neighbours don’t have enough to spare to bail out colleagues.
When times are hard you look after your own.
Such are the times among the vendors.
Lebitsa says the stokvels (saving groups) are “dry because everyone is burdened and there isn’t enough money”.
“We used to raise funds and borrow from the saving groups but times are tough” Lebitsa says.
The trouble is that most of the vendors don’t have access to credit because they don’t have access to formal financial institutions. In most cases they don’t bank because they have nothing to save.
They use their small daily profits to buy food for the day. Those who use banks lack the collateral and proper financial books to qualify for loans. It’s the same problem that confronts the majority of small businesses.
In the Finscope survey 20 percent of the respondents identified lack of access to credit as the biggest independent to the growth of their businesses.
Unable to tap into their collective resources or get loans from banks, some vendors have resorted to getting credit from illegal moneylenders, some of whom demand as much as 30 percent in monthly interest.
That is how Namo Letšela, who sells roasted maize cobs, got the M400 to restart his business. He was down to his last penny when the lockdown regulations were eased.
“There were just too many needs to be taken care of during the lockdown,” Letšela says as he turns browning maize cobs on the embers.
Desperate, Letšela found himself knocking on a moneylender’s door. They haggled over the interest until it came down from 40 to 25 percent.
He says he is grateful for the discount but the interest is still too steep for his business.
The repayment rules are punitive. At the end of this month he will have to pay M500 to clear both the principle debt and the interest.
He can also repay the interest of M100 only and postpone the principal amount.
That sounds like a good deal but is any but.
If he pays the interest for four months he would have paid the lender M400, the same amount he borrowed but the principal amount remains.
For a man with three children and a wife, M100 is a huge amount.
It is enough for a 10kg bag of meali-meal, the staple, and a small bottle of cooking oil. It can also buy ten loaves of bread: ten days of what is a decent breakfast for his family.
With business low because the lockdown rules still restricts people from traveling and some companies are closed, Letšela is not sure that if he will clear the debt.
For now he will keep paying off the interest because defaulting would cause him further financial ruin. The agreement is that if he doesn’t pay anything the interest will be added to the principal debt to increase the debt to M500 and increase the interest to M125.
That can continue for months until he cannot repay and the lender takes everything he owns. Sometimes violence is used.
Letšela says the future looks bleak for him and other vendors.
“Some of our colleagues are not even back yet because things are tough. There is no money.”
Before the lockdown Letšela, who lost his security job a few years ago, could return home with as much as M200 in profit. Now he is lucky to make M100.
That’s because there are no customers and fresh maize has become more expensive as the supply dwindles.
Apart from the sliding sales and repaying his debt, Letšela is worried that the fresh maize season is coming to a close. In a week or so there will be no fresh maize and he will have to find something else to trade.
He is thinking about apples but he says they don’t bring as much profit as maize. The profit on an apple is 50c, far less than the M4 he makes on a maize cob. The fruit market is also extremely competitive.
’Matsela Ntsu thought her food business would continue to be as good as it was before the lockdown. So when vendors were allowed back on the streets she used her last M1 000 to buy gas, meali-meal, meat and other ingredients.
On the first day she prepared what used to be her “best seller”: papa, roasted pork and vegetable salad.
“The sales were a disaster,” Ntsu says.
There were not enough people buying her food.
“My biggest clients, taxi drivers, have resorted to bringing lunch boxes to work or buying bread from Shoprite as it is cheaper.”
She says as the poor sales continued for the next weeks she was on the verge of losing her mind.
“I was at the verge of losing my mind. Every day I would take home food that I would feed by family for supper because it could not be sold the next morning.”
Last week Ntsu packed her cooking utensils and started selling apples.
“The business of selling cooked food is suicidal at the moment.”
She is yet to see if the switch to apples will change her fortunes but she might be in for a rude awakening because other fruit vendors like Letele Kanetsi are already squirming. Kanetsi, a widower and father of two young children, describes 2020 as a “tragic year”.
“These fruits take time to sell. I have to throw some away because they are rotten,” Kanetsi says.
Like other vendors, he has a well nuanced understanding of how the Covid-19 crisis has affected his customers.
“People have been retrenched, those who are still going to work receive half salaries and they still need to make ends meet,” he says.
Before the crisis Kanetsi was not making thousands from his business but just enough to feed his children. Now he can barely make ends meet and worries that he might have to abandon the stall that has been his source of income for nearly a decade.
“God will see us through this tragic year,” he laments.
A few weeks into the lockdown Mateboho Lerotholi, who sells cigarettes and airtime, told thepost that her biggest fear was that she would not be able to provide for her family and revive her business.
Now those words have come to pass.
Lerotholi could not raise the capital to revive her business and her family is on the verge of starving.
“I am sitting at home basking in the sun wondering where our next meal will come from. At the moment I don’t even think about going back to work.”
Lerotholi had just sold the last of her stock and bought mealie-meal. She is worried that her Form E son might not go back to school.
Her efforts to raise the M5 000 she needs to restart her business have come to naught.
“We are not beggars but having stayed at home for these two months has exhausted our means and we need some assistance to get back onto our feet,” Lerotholi says.
She says they have been waiting for the government to deliver on its promise to provide some relief but nothing has happened.
In April the government said it had set aside M450 million to expand Credit Guarantee Facilities through the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) and the Ministry of Small Businesses.
The Covid-19 Policy document shows that big businesses that have invested in the country through the LNDC will share M350 million credit guarantee facility.
Small businesses will share M100 million, according to the policy document.
The government says it is going to reverse the credit sharing from 50:50 between itself and financial institutions to 75:25 – meaning the government will give 75 percent guarantee.
The government has also pledged to launch three months disbursing time bound 80:20 matching grant scheme of M50 million for medium, small and micro businesses.
It is targeting the tourism sector, including hotels and restaurants, transport and food sectors and MSMEs with the scope to expand as the impact of the Covid-19 emerge.
The government also said it will provide up to M20 000 matching grant for companies with between one and 50 employees on condition they maintained the same number of workers and should be registered with the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) and the Open Business Facilitation Centre (OBFC) for at least two years.
It also said all other MSMEs registered with relevant authorities will be eligible for once-off matching grants of up to M5 000.
“With 85 percent of Lesotho’s MSMEs unbanked, grants could be delivered through bank accounts, which could be facilitated through launching an online system for account enrolment, as well as opening e-wallets online,” the statement says.
So far none of those interventions have happened.
For Lerotholi and other vendors in dire straits, the wait continues. In the meantime hunger stalks them and their families.
Setsabi Setsabi, a senior lecturer in development studies at the National University of Lesotho, is not holding out much hope that the vendors’ plight will improve anytime soon.
He says for years he has watched vendors being marginalized and neglected.
The problem, Setsabi reckons, is how the government has always viewed those who work as vendors.
“They (vendors) are classified as informal traders for the reason that there is always an attempt to see them as illegal,” Setsabi says.
“This is done conveniently to avoid dealing with the fundamental reasons why these people are on the streets and the real problems they face.”
“The idea seems to be that once you have classified the sector as informal and illegal you don’t have to deal with its causes and the reasons why people partake in it.”
He says that is why the conversation about vendors is “conflated in what appears to be class issues where those who have have the audacity to say the government should not be bothered by unregistered businesses that don’t even pay tax”.
Lemohang Rakotsoane & Shakeman Mugari
Lawyer in trouble
A local lawyer, Advocate Molefi Makase, is in soup after he flew into a rage, insulting his wife and smashing her phone at a police station.
It was not possible to establish why Adv Makase was so mad at his wife. He is now expected to appear before the Tšifa-li-Mali Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.
Earlier on Tuesday, he was released from custody on free bail on condition that he attends remands.
Magistrate Mpotla Koaesa granted Advocate Makase bail after his lawyer, Advocate Kefuoe Machaile, pleaded that he had to appear for his clients in the Court of Appeal.
Advocate Makase is facing two charges of breaching peace and malicious damage to property.
According to the charge sheet, on October 5, 2023, within the precincts of the Leribe Police Station, Advocate Makase allegedly used obscene, threatening, or insulting language or behaviour, or acted with an intent to incite a breach of the peace.
The prosecution alleges that the lawyer shouted at his wife, ’Mamahao Makase, and damaged her Huawei Y5P cell phone “with an intention to cause harm” right at police station.
During his initial appearance before Magistrate Koaesa, Advocate Makase expressed remorse for his actions and sought the court’s leniency, pleading for bail due to an impending appearance in the Court of Appeal.
His lawyer, Advocate Machaile, informed the court that an arrangement had been made with the police to secure his release the following day, as he had spent a night in detention.
Advocate Machaile recounted his efforts to persuade the police to release him on the day of his arrest.
He noted that the police had assured them of his release the following day, which indeed came to fruition.
Following his release, he was instructed to present himself before the court, which he dutifully complied with.
Advocate Machaile underscored Advocate Makase’s standing as a recognised legal practitioner in the court.
Notably, he was scheduled to appear in the Court of Appeal but had to reschedule his commitment later in the day to accommodate his court appearance.
Advocate Machaile asserted that Advocate Makase presented no flight risk, as he resides in Hlotse with his family and has no motive to evade his legal obligations.
He respectfully petitioned the court for his release on bail, emphasising that he had demonstrated his ability to adhere to the court’s conditions.
The Crown Counsel, Advocate Taelo Sello, expressed no objection to the bail application, acknowledging that the accused had a forthcoming matter in the Court of Appeal.
Consequently, the court granted Advocate Makase bail without any financial conditions, with the stipulation that he must not tamper with state witnesses and must fully participate in the trial process until its conclusion.
Trio in court for killing ‘witches’
THREE elderly women were all stabbed to death with a spear during a deadly night after they were accused of being witches.
Three suspects, all from Ha-Kholoko village in Roma, appeared in the High Court this week facing a charge of murder.
They are Jakobo Mofolo, Oele Poto, and Pakiso Lehoko.
They accused the elderly women of bewitching one of Poto’s relative who had died.
The stunning details of the murder was unravelled in court this week, thanks to Tlhaba Bochabela, 32, who is the crown witness.
Bochabela told High Court judge, Justice ’Mabatšoeneng Hlaele, last week that he had been invited to become part of the murder group but chickened out at the last minute.
Bochabela said in March 2020, he was invited by Rethabile Poto to come to his house in the evening.
He said when he went there, he found Mofolo, Poto, and Lehoko already at the house. There were two other men who he did not identify.
“I was told that the very same night we were going to do some task, we were going to kill some people,” Bochabela told Justice Hlaele.
He said he asked which people were going to be killed and was told that they were ’Malekhooa Maeka, ’Mathlokomelo Poto, ’Mampolokeng Masasa.
They said the three women had successfully bewitched Rethabile Poto’s uncle leading to his death.
Bochabela said after he was told of this plot, he agreed to implement it but requested that he be allowed to go to his house to fetch his weapon.
He said Lehoko was however suspicious that he was withdrawing from the plot and mockingly said “let this woman go and sleep, we can see that he is afraid and is running away”.
Bochabela said the only person he told the truth to, that he was indeed going to his home to sleep instead of going to murder the three elderly women was Mofolo who also told him that he was leaving too.
He said he told Mofolo that he felt uncomfortable with the murder plan.
Bochabela said he left and when he arrived at his place he told his wife all about the meeting and the plot to kill the women.
He said his wife commended him for his decision to pull out.
“I told my wife to lock the door and not respond to anyone that would come knocking looking for me,” Bochabela said.
He said later in the night, Rethabile Poto arrived at his place and called him out but they did not respond until he left.
Bochabela said in the morning they discovered that indeed the men had carried out their mission.
The village chief of Ha-Kholoko, Chief Thabang Lehoko, told Justice Hlaele that it was between 11 pm and 12 midnight when he received a phone call from one Pakiso Maseka who is a neighbour to one of the murdered women.
Chief Lehoko said Maseka told him to rush to ’Mampolokeng Masasa’s place to see what evil had been done to her.
“I rushed to Masasa’s place and on arrival I found Pakiso in the company of Moitheri Masasa,” Chief Lehoko said.
He said he found the old lady on the bed, naked with her legs spread wide.
“I was embarrassed by the sight of the old lady in that state, naked and covered in blood,” the chief said.
He said he went out and asked Maseka what had happened but Maseka referred him to Moitheri Masasa.
Chief Lehoko said Masasa told him that there were people with spears who had threatened to kill him if he came out of the house.
He said Maseka said he knew that Masasa’s neighbour, ’Malekhooa Maeka, was a light sleeper and she could have heard something.
The chief then sent one Patrick Lehoko to Maeka’s house to check if she had heard anything but Patrick came back saying Maeka was not at her house.
“I immediately stood up and went to ’Malekhooa’s place,” Chief Lehoko said.
He said when he arrived, he knocked at her door but there was no response so he kicked the door open, went in and called out ’Malekhooa Maeka by name.
Chief Lehoko said he then lit his phone and saw her lying in bed covered in blankets.
He said he then went closer to her and shook her but she was heavy.
Chief Lehoko said he tried to shake her again one last time while still calling her out but he touched blood.
He said he immediately left and went back to tell others that Maeka seemed to be dead too.
“I decided to go and buy airtime from the nearest shop which I had passed through near ’Matlhokomelo Poto’s home.”
He said on his way he met one Sebata Poto who asked him who he was.
Chief Lehoko said he only replied by telling him that the two women, Masasa and Maeka, had been murdered.
He said Sebata Poto told him that “’Matlhokomelo has been stabbed with a spear too”.
Chief Lehoko said he rushed to ’Matlhokomelo Poto’s house where he found her seated in the middle of the house supported by her children with blood oozing from her chest, gasping for air.
“I stepped out and went to get airtime, but I found her dead when I returned from the shop,” the chief said.
The case continues.
Opposition fights back
THE opposition is launching a nasty fightback after Prime Minister Sam Matekane defanged their no-confidence motion by roping in new partners to firm up his government.
Matekane’s surprise deal with the Basotho Action Party (BAP) has trimmed the opposition’s support in parliament and thrown their motion into doubt.
But the opposition has now filed another motion that seeks to get Matekane and his MPs disqualified from parliament on account that they were elected when they had business interests with the government.
The motion is based on section 59 of the constitution which disqualifies a person from being sworn-in as an MP if they have “any such interest in any such government contract as may be so prescribed”.
Section 59 (6) describes a government contract as “any contract made with the Government of Lesotho or with a department of that Government or with an officer of that Government contracting as such”.
Prime Minister Matekane’s Matekane Group of Companies (MGC) has a history of winning road construction tenders. Other Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) MPs, most of whom were in business, had had business dealings with the government.
It is however not clear if the MPs were still doing business with the government at the time of their swearing-in.
Matekane’s MGC Park is housing the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which is a government institution established by the constitution, getting its funds from the consolidated funds.
The motion was brought by the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) leader Lekhetho Rakuoane who is a key figure in the opposition’s bid to topple Matekane.
The motion appears to be a long shot but should be taken in the context of a political game that has become nasty.
Advocate Rakuoane said the IEC’s tenancy at the MGC is one of their targets.
“The IEC is one of the government departments,” Rakuoane said.
“It is currently unethical that it has hired the prime minister’s building.”
“But after the motion, he will have to cut ties with the IEC or he will be kicked out of parliament.”
The Democratic Congress (DC) leader, Mathibeli Mokhothu, said although the IEC is an independent body, it can still be regarded as part of the government because it gets its funding from the consolidated fund.
The Basotho Covenant Movement (BCM)’s Reverend Tšepo Lipholo, who seconded the motion, said the Matekane-led government “is dominated by tenderpreneurs who have been doing business with the government since a long time ago”.
“Now they have joined politics, they must not do business with the government,” Lipholo said.
He said some of the MPs in the ruling parties are still doing business with the government despite their promises before the election to stop doing that.
“Those who will not abide by the law should be disqualified as MPs,” Lipholo said.
“Basotho’s small businesses are collapsing day-by-day, yet people who are in power continue to take tenders for themselves.”
He applauded the Abia constituency MP Thuso Makhalanyane, who was recently expelled from Matekane’s RFP for rebellion because he withdrew his car from government engagement after he was sworn in as an MP.
“He set a good example by withdrawing his vehicle where it was hired by the government,” Lipholo said.
Rakuoane said during the past 30 years after Lesotho’s return to democratic rule, section 59 of the constitution has not been attended to even when it was clear that some MPs had business dealings with the government.
“This section stops you from entering parliament when doing business with the government. Those who are already members will have to leave,” he said.
Rakuoane said they are waiting for Speaker Tlohang Sekhamane to sign the motion so that the parliament business committee can set a date for its debate.
“The law will also serve to assist ordinary Basotho businesses as they will not compete with the executive,” he said.
“There are many Basotho businesses in business these MPs are in. They must get those tenders instead.”
The new motion comes barely a week after a court application aimed at disqualifying Mokhothu.
The government-sponsored application sought the Constitutional Court to declare Mokhothu unfit to be prime minister because he was convicted of fraud in 2007.
Mokhothu has been suggested as Matekane’s replacement should the motion of no confidence pass in parliament.
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