…allegedly owe nearly M200 million in bill arrears
KEISO MOHLOBOLI and MANTSALI PHAKOANA
The government owes the Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) more than M50 million in unpaid electricity bills while private companies and some embassies owe the struggling state-owned enterprise an additional M140 million, MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism can reveal.
The size of debt was highlighted in an eternal LEC report dated May 2019, which was leaked to the centre.
The report makes it clear that the Lesotho Defence Force and government hospitals are major offenders.
The document also points a finger at big private companies and certain diplomatic missions in Lesotho, including those of China, South Africa and the United States.
The LEC has been unable to cope or carry out many programmes aimed at solving electricity consumer’s problems including regular blackouts and maintenance failures because of stringent budget.
Consumers have complained over several years about electricity cuts during bad weather.
The former LEC managing director Thabo Nkhahle has, on the other hand, alleged that much of the equipment used to transmit electricity to consumers is too old and worn-out.
Nkhahle said due to its tight budget, LEC has been unable to replace obsolete equipment hence Lesotho’s repeated power cuts.
LEC is also cramped by the regulator, early this year, it asked the Lesotho Electricity and Water Authority (LEWA) to approve a 14.2 percent increase in energy and maximum demand charges for all categories of customers, arguing that the utility’s wiring network “is very old and it needs to be refurbished to high standards which involve high costs”.
The proposal was turned down LEWA revised LEC’s 2019/2020 revenue downwards to M901 million, instead of M1.1 billion proposed by the company. The current charges for connections, wiring, testing, retesting, surveying and re-surveying, licensing for wiring, meter testing and house extension will remain the same.
The current flat energy charge per kilowatt (KWh) is M1, 4782 for domestic usage. “We only demanded M0.19 increment for domestic consumers. We are charging M0.2559 per KWh for commercial electricity and only demanded M0.03 increment,” Mr Nkhahle said.
According to the company’s analysis, the Lesotho Defence Force owes M10 million for electricity making it the largest debtor of all the government institutions.
Speaking exclusively with the centre, LDF public affairs officer Lieutenant Colonel Mashili Mashili confirmed the debt to the power utility while declining to give the exact amount.
Lt Col Mashili said LDF is working on paying off the debt “There has been an accumulation of debt over the years for various reasons, the main one being budgetary constraints,” he said.
“But the LDF is still trying everything in its power to source funds and settle the debt”.
Government hospitals alleged to owe LEC large amounts of money shifted the blame to ministry of health, claiming that budgetary limitations made it difficult to pay their bills.
Commenting on Mafeteng hospital ‘s alleged M700 000 electricity debt, hospital’s spokesperson one Mrs Mohai said the LEC had not sent the hospital an electricity bill since April 2019, making it difficult to know how much it is owed.
“The hospital has a limited budget, so, we cannot afford to settle electricity and other bills. Please contact the ministry of health, I am not authorised to talk in-depth with the media,” she said.
Quthing Hospital’s manager Dr Mokhahlane, confirmed the hospital has a debt to LEC but refused to talk further.
The accountant of Mokhotlong hospital, certain Mr Mokoena said he could not disclose confidential client and supplier information but disputed the ageing report’s claim that the hospital owes more than M700 000 for electricity.
“In February 2019, health ministry gave us subsidy of M500 000 because our budget has always been too tight and insufficient. We are only three months in arrears and that cannot be M700 000,” Mr Mokoena said.
Mokoena also said the hospital budget has remained unchanged, despite the fact that it has been extended and electricity usage increased.
The spokesperson for Queen ‘Mamohato Memorial Hospital Ms Mothepane Thahane denied that the hospital owes M638 274 as reported in the document, “I checked with our accounts office the hospital is up to date”.
The accounting officer of Seboche hospital Mr Pule Albert Qhobosheane said the LEC’s report was faulty, accusing it of negligence and unprofessionalism.
“We do not owe LEC. The people working in their credit control department are not doing their job, they are too lazy to update their system. When paying LEC we use maximum demand, not prepaid. We use electricity first then pay afterwards. I used to pressurise them to update but they have failed. At some point they even failed to make follow-ups to confirm if we have been cleared after making a payment,” Mr Qhobosheane said.
In an interview, LEC spokesperson Tšepang Ledia confirmed government’s unpaid electricity bills, saying that the defence force on it’s own owed more than M10 million.
Ledia said the LEC is not subsidised by the government and that this affects the company’s daily operations as it cannot switch off the power. “Unfortunately we cannot switch off the power to government, as that would be sabotage. We are part of the government,” he said.
“We incur a lot of expenses for bulk electricity purchases from Electricidade de Mozambique and South Africa. Their rates are higher than those of the Lesotho based ‘Muela Hydro Power station.
With a maximum nominal generating capacity of 72 KWh, ‘Muela supplies Lesotho with about half Lesotho’s power needs.
LEC buys electricity in bulk from the Electricidade de Mozambique at a rate M0.89 cents per unit and from Eskom at M0.98 cents per unit.
MNNCIJ has learned that towards the end of 2018, some police stations resorted to using candles because they could not afford electricity.
In an interview with the centre, police spokesperson Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli declined to comment.
“Please contact the ministry’s PRO, I am not the right person to give details on this matter. What I know is that we do not have funds to buy prepaid electricity but not all stations used candle lights”.
Local media have quoted Sup Mopeli as saying that less than halfway through the 2018/2019 financial year, the police were already struggling to pay bills.
The Mabote police station is said to be in the worst financial difficulties.
Sup Mopeli said that this had the effect of discouraging citizens from reporting cases to the police at night.
Principal Secretary of Home Affairs, ‘Machabana Lemphane Letsie, declined to answer the centre’s questions.
The Chinese Embassy’s one Liam also refused to answer questions about its alleged M37 195 electricity debt saying he was not mandated to speak to the media. He said it was unnecessary to write about the embassy’s debt to the LEC but failed to give reasons.
South African High Commissioner to Lesotho His Excellency Sello Moloto told the centre that SA High Commission is up-to-date.
Efforts of getting comments from LEC’s Managing Director Dr Leketekete Ketso were fruitless. He asked the centre through telephone conversation to submit questions via email and hand-deliver questions written on paper but failed to respond.
Putting before LEWA and other stakeholders, LEC was also procuring generators that will be used in remote places like Semonkong to generate electricity.