The Minister of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing, Chalane Phori has defended the Thaba-Bosiu-based Lesotho Wool Centre auction as a lucrative deal set to benefit farmers in the near future.
Phori made this submission to parliament’s ad-hoc committee investigating the sale of wool and mohair at the Centre following an outcry by farmers who accused Chinese broker, Stone Shi, of impoverishing them through delayed payments and giving them low returns.
Shi was made the only broker who can buy and export the wool and mohair by government’s new regulations introduced last year, which ended the farmers’ longstanding tradition of selling their produce independently in South Africa, mainly through a broker called BKB.
But the farmers have since accused Shi of reneging on his promise to bring them better returns and new markets in China, and also say he pays them late, which have conspired to make them destitute.
However, Phori told the parliamentary ad-hoc committee that the decision to localise and centralise the sale of the produce would soon benefit the farmers, while also blaming politicians for the debacle which saw angry farmers marching to parliament and petitioning the Speaker last month, and calling for the abolition of the new law.
The ad-hoc was formed last month and began probing the sale of Lesotho’s wool and mohair and the sector as a whole, on 2 July. The investigation is expected to be complete on 11 July.
The ad-hoc committee comprises Members of Parliament (MPs) Ntlhoi Motsamai, Kimetso Mathaba, Thabang Kholumo, Likopo Mahase, Kose Makoa, Selibe Mochoboroane, Teboho Sekata, Thulo Mahlakeng, Limpho Tau, Tšeliso Kalake, Moeketse Malebo, ‘Mapulumo Hlao, Mohapi Mohapinyane, Thuso Litjobo and Motlohi Maliehe, Tlokotsi ‘Manyoko and ‘Marapelang Malefane.
During the committee’s second inquiry on Wednesday, Phori said the local auction centre was a lucrative deal set to benefit the farmers.
Phori also said the Wool and Mohair Regulation 2018 that gives Shi-owned broker, Maseru Dawning, a monopoly on the auction and export of wool and mohair deserved commendation rather than criticism due to its contribution to the country’s economic growth.
He further told the committee that so far, the Centre had contributed huge amounts of revenue to Lesotho.
“The overall produce of Lesotho wool and mohair is 48 000 bales, but the centre only received 24 000 bales and it has managed to bring M 4 770 000 while the former broker, BKB, would bring about M4 014 000 million from all 48 bales,” Phori said.
Despite the delayed arrival of money to farmers’ bank accounts, Phori indicated that the Chinese-owned broker had created lots of employment for locals and hired Basotho’s working equipment. He said this had contributed immensely to Lesotho’s economic growth.
Phori also stated that BKB had badly hampered the country’s economy as it was a foreign broker that was not even investing in Lesotho.
He again told the committee that BKB was only a middle-man between the farmers and buyers, but earned huge commissions and only brought peanuts to the farmers.
Phori could not resist throwing jabs at the South African broker, whom he said was even trading illegally in Lesotho.
The minister added BKB had an account with Standard Lesotho Bank which it was using for paying the farmers without remitting due tax.
“After realising this account, the Lesotho Mounted Police Service investigated it and it was then frozen. Then later on, the Lesotho Revenue Authority took the authority over this matter,” said Phori.
He explained the delay in payment was caused by critical issues which were not taken into consideration before the implementation of the new law. He added now that they had been brought to the table, everybody had to support the government on this initiative.
Phori also told the committee that even though this regulation had unsettled the public, most of the confusion was brought by politicians and shearing sheds chairpersons as most of them tried very hard to tarnish this lucrative deal.
“I want to make an example with Khotsang Moshoeshoe. He did not bring his wool and mohair to the centre but is among those who are complaining about money,” said Phori.
The minister said he had tangible evidence that Moshoeshoe and Thinyane Mokoinihi were given M4 million respectively allegedly by BKB so that Mokhotlong and Qacha’s Nek wool and mohair could be taken to BKB rather than the Lesotho Wool Centre.
He told the MPs that this regulation was planned a long time ago and most of its critics envy the fact that it was introduced during Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s government.
Phori also said he was surprised to see Dr Mohlalefi Moteane and other MPs standing at the border-post to stop wool trucks from crossing the border and thereafter complain about the centre’s delay in paying the farmers.
“Do not forget that Moteane is a member of the State Council but he has the guts to stand in front of something that was introduced to benefit the nation,” Phori said.
He added farmers once partnered with the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) for the implementation of this regulation, and advised to vote for the aforesaid party so that their representative, who was then Thinyane Mokoinihi, could get a Proportional Representation (PR) seat in parliament and then propose this law.
“I am not ashamed to say this because I have the proof that I can present to this committee if ever the committee requires me to do so,” the minister said.
Phori added he would lead the committee to the famers who were present back in 2011 while this partnership was being planned.
He said there were famers who really appreciated this regulation and are ready to give their side of the story on the people who are condemning this law in their communities.
“I have seen political party leaders organising farmers for petition. If I can also organise mine, who will stand against that petition?” asked Phori.
The Principal Secretary in the ministry, Lerata Pekane, also chipped in, revealing some farmers were being owed by BKB since 2014.
Phori then told the committee that there were 27 famers in Thaba-Tseka who had not been paid by BKB since 2014 and 43 in Bela Bela, Berea district.
Asked about the petition handed to parliament by farmers last month calling for the abolition of the localisation law, Phori said the prime minister had promised to offer famers a three-month grace period to take their wool and mohair to brokers of their choice. However, the wool is going to be taken to Basotho brokers only, he added.
“We are going to issue trading licenses to our own Basotho nationals to buy and sell wool during this period,” he said.
Asked whether this act is setting aside the 2018 Wool and Mohair regulation, the minister said he could not answer that question as the prime minister was the one to decide. However, the committee members reminded him the prime minister had no power to set aside a regulation without the approval of parliament.