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John reveals how he helped fund politicians in Lesotho – but denies claim of state capture

LEKHETHO NTSUKUNYANE

Lesotho-based Chinese business tycoon Yan Xie has lifted the lid on his extensive generosity to Lesotho’s political elite, saying that he helped fund Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s lavish wedding last year and has donated money to “almost every party in the country”.

In an exclusive interview in Johannesburg, Xie also said:

  • Thabane lived in his mansion in the exclusive Maseru suburb of Hillsview after returning from exile last year.
  • He helped fund the wedding of Thato Nkhahle (nee Mosisili), the daughter of Pakalitha Mosisili, when Mosisili was prime minister;
  • He sponsored the birthday party of the former deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing earlier this year. A spokesperson for Metsing’s party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), denied this.

Xie, known universally in Lesotho as “John”, is a naturalised Mosotho who arrived in Lesotho from China in 1990 and built a business empire spanning supermarkets, construction, farming and quarrying.

He first topped the news agenda and stirred heated debate when Thabane appointed him “head of special projects and the prime minister’s special envoy and trade adviser on the China-Asia trade network” in August last year, immediately after forming his new government.

Opposition politicians increasingly accuse him of calling the shots in government and using his influence in the Premier’s office to advance the interests of the Chinese community, at the expense of indigenous Basotho.

A spokesperson for the opposition LCD, Teboho Sekata, said last week that “there are signs that John is controlling the government”.

As a major shareholder in Lesotho’s only abattoir, he is seen to have benefited directly from the government ban on red meat imports in March this year.

He is also accused of driving the state’s controversial new policy on wool and mohair, which seeks to localise the industry under the control of another Chinese businessman, “Stone” Shi. Xie dismissed the allegations of “state capture”, saying this “was not even his intention”.

Xie agreed that he had urged government to replace the South African-based wool broker BKB with a Chinese concern, Ningbo ETDZ Holdings, but denied any connection with Shi’s exporting company, Maseru Dawning.

Xie has registered 24 companies in Lesotho, but amaBhungane could not establish if any of these has won government tenders. Lesotho does not have a central record of tender awards.

However, he did say that he has lent money to more than 70 local companies doing government work. He did not provide details of the sectors or size of the contracts.

Thabane’s wedding took place in August last year. A red-carpet affair, it was staged in the Setsoto national soccer stadium in Maseru before a crowd of 15 000.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane waves to the crowd during his wedding

Xie confirmed making a contribution to the wedding of “between M20 000 and M30 000; I can’t remember”, but denied any attempt to buy influence.

“In our culture we give money to people when we have it. We have a culture of red envelope and white envelope,” Xie said.

“If you invite us to a wedding or any other feast or party, we come with the red envelope. If it is a funeral, the envelope is white. The envelopes contain money for the people who invited us.”

However, a senior source in Thabane’s own party claimed that Xie had paid for “almost the entire wedding”.

The source said the designer wedding dress in flowing white and gold could have cost close to a million rand on its own.

Xie said he could not recall how much he contributed to the wedding of Mosisili’s daughter and Metsing’s birthday.

On accommodating Thabane after the latter’s return from exile last year, he confirmed that he had put up the ABC leader in his house “because he had nowhere else to stay”. Thabane has his own house in Abia, his Maseru constituency.

Xie said that Thabane paid a monthly rental of R7 000, “which he sometimes delayed to pay”.

This appears to be well below the market rate. Xie’s Hillsview mansion is reportedly located not far from Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara’s double-storey house, which the state controversially leased for R27 000 a month.

Opposition politicians Ramahooana Matlosa, of the Majalefa Development Movement, and Motlalentoa Letsosa, of Mosisili’s Democratic Congress, argued that Thabane must have been “subsidised by someone or Xie himself”. Xie denied this.

Thabane answered his phone when amaBhungane contacted him for comment, but rang off when this reporter introduced himself. Subsequent calls were rejected.

His spokesperson, Thabo Thakalekoala, told amaBhungane he would not answer certain questions sent by amaBhungane to his email because they concerned the Premier’s private life.

He refused to say whether Xie paid for Thabane’s wedding, saying: “I sat down with the government secretary (Moahloli Mphaka) and the prime minister himself over your email. It is from that meeting that a decision was made not to answer some of your questions because they request for private information about the PM.”

He confirmed that Thabane had lived at Xie’s house, but refused to say how long he stayed there or what he paid in rent. “That has nothing to do with the media because it was before he became prime minister,” he said.

Thabane returned from almost two years of self-imposed exile with two of his current partners in Lesotho’s four-party coalition government, the Basotho National Party’s (BNP) Thesele Maseribane, and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho’s Keketso Rantšo, in February last year.

The fourth coalition partner is the Alliance of Democrats (AD), under Monyane Moleleki.

According to Xie, Thabane lived in his mansion from the date of his return until the elections in June last year.

Thabane was inaugurated as Lesotho’s prime minister on June 16, 2017. He appointed Xie his trade adviser on August 14 and married Maesiah Thabane the following weekend.

Thakalekoala dismissed allegations of state capture as “desperate measures by the opposition to destabilise the government. It’s rubbish”. He said Thabane was mentally and physically fit when he made the decision to appoint Xie.

“That prerogative rests with the prime minister. It’s his constitutional right to appoint anybody of his choice to that office. He could have appointed an Indian, Italian, Zulu, Venda or Mosotho,” Thakalekoala said.

ABC spokesperson Tefo Mapesela denied the party had received funding from Xie.

Mapesela, who is also trade minister, said, “no single report was ever made by the party treasurer indicating that the party received any funding from John. It cannot be true that he has ever funded us”.

Asked about the cost of the wedding, and how much Xie contributed, Maesiah’s spokesperson, Silas Monyatsi, said he knew nothing about “the private life of first lady. I am confined to government business. I do not know anything about Ntate John”.

Contacted by phone, Mosisili postponed the interview, saying he was receiving treatment for a health problem. Subsequent attempts to secure comment from him were unsuccessful. He has yet to read questions sent on WhatsApp.

Former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili

Repeated efforts to get comment from his daughter were also fruitless.

Questions to other parties about funding from Xie also went nowhere. AmaBhungane sought comment from Mosisili’s deputy leader Mathibeli Mokhothu, who referred us to the party spokesperson, Serialong Qoo. Qoo said he was busy and asked this reporter to call later. Subsequent calls were not answered.

But the spokesperson for Metsing’s LCD, Sekata, dismissed Xie’s claim about bankrolling the party leader’s birthday.

He said LCD MPs contributed R100 000 to the event, which was then distributed to charities. “None of that came from John,” he said.

He said the LCD had never received funding from the tycoon.

“For years we have been struggling to raise money for our election campaigns. Nowhere has it ever come up that money was received from John. He must have been giving it to some individuals, not the party as a structure,” he said.

Former Deputy Prime Minister, Mothetjoa Metsing

Sekata said Xie “calls the shots. Lately he issued an instruction for the trade minister (Mapesela) to release some Chinese business people when the latter issued an instruction for their arrest. The minister complied.”

Mapesela dismissed this as untrue.

However, the BNP spokesperson and current home affairs deputy minister, Machesetsa Mofomobe, admitted that Xie had funded individuals in his party, including backing his own election campaigns in 2017 and on other occasions. But he said the Chinese businessman had never sponsored the BNP as a party.

“In my campaign ahead of the 2017 election, without his contributions I could not have managed to hire public transport for my supporters when we travelled to some places. I cannot even calculate how much he has contributed to me.”

Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Machesetsa Mofomobe

Machesetsa said it was impossible for Lesotho’s political parties to survive on membership subscriptions only. “We do approach different business people for funding,” he said.

He said his friendship and business partnership with Xie started “long before I even became a known politician”.

Machesetsa also has business links with Xie. Lesotho’s companies’ registry shows that the latter is a director and shareholder of one of the deputy minister’s companies, Male Holdings.

Former AD youth league executive member Lekhotla Matšaba appears as both a shareholder and director of Xie-owned retail company Cubana Shells Holdings.

In addition, AD activist Teboho Mothebesoane acquired his controlling stake in Meriti Holdings from Xie in July 2015. Efforts to reach Matšaba and Mothebesoane for comment were unsuccessful.

Asked about this, Xie said: ““I don’t look at people’s faces. I do business with anyone as long as they have a business vision. They could be politicians, I don’t mind. I help a lot of Basotho to become business-minded,”

Xie relinquished his shareholding in some of his companies in August last year when he was appointed Thabane’s adviser, in some cases transferring them to his wife, Xiaoyi Yao.

He said he did this “because she’s also a businessperson”.

A significant example was his transfer to Yao of 690 shares in Maraka Lesotho on August 2 last year – a fortnight before he was appointed Thabane’s trade adviser.

The government has a long-standing contract with Meraka to manage Lesotho’s only national abattoir, in the Berea district.

In March this year, the government announced a ban on the importation of red meat from South Africa. The small business Minister Chalane Phori said this was done to reserve the market for local producers.

Letsosa and Matlosa were adamant that the embargo was intended to benefit Xie.

Phori said critics of the ban were “government detractors who are desperate to see the current coalition government failing”. Xie said he was not part of the decision to ban red meat “and I have nothing to benefit from that”.

Other shareholders in Meraka include Hou Yao, with 750 shares, sufficient to give Xie a controlling stake. AmaBhungane was unable to establish if Hou Yao and Xie’s wife, Xiaoyi Yao, are related.

Another minority shareholder in Meraka is former assistant police commissioner Bernard Ntaote, who could not be contacted for comment.

Asked whether any of his companies had government contracts, Xie said he preferred to lend money “at small interest” to companies that were awarded government tenders but lacked the financial capacity to deliver.

“We’ve assisted about 75 companies,” he said. “Some have disappeared with my money after the government paid them. They owe me,” he said.

His current policy was to sign agreements giving him a temporary controlling stake in companies coming to him for funding, “so that it’s not easy for them to disappear with my money. The strategy works perfectly.”

Since his appointment, Xie said he had brought major projects from China to Lesotho, “which are all pending approval by the Cabinet”.

These included a project in which 30 000 Basotho women would travel to China as domestic workers. Each would earn R 6, 000 a month, “three-times more than what they are currently earning in the textile factories”.

Lesotho’s textile sector employs about 40 000 workers, many of them women.

Xie said China currently employs 300 000 domestics from the Philippines, “and we only need Lesotho to provide 10 percent of that”.

He said the government is currently assessing the feasibility of two proposed Chinese proposals for the establishment of 35 pig farms and 35 chicken farms in Lesotho, with a total value of R100-million.

“The government is just too slow. Everything takes too long for the ministers to approve. Lesotho is behind in so many things because ministers don’t make decisions,” Xie said.

Phori confirmed to amaBhungane that the projects were awaiting approval at his small business ministry.

Xie said he had refused to accept a salary for his job as trade adviser, “I told the government secretary (Mphaka) to keep their salary. What can it do for me? It’s a small amount for me,” he said, while refusing to reveal the figure.

The only benefit was use of a government vehicle “which they insisted on giving me after I was robbed three times in Maseru”.

  • Lekhetho Ntsukunyane works for the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism. He is currently doing a fellowship with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism in South Africa.
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