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John embroiled in AD t-shirts brawl

SECHABA MOKHETHI

A triangular battle between controversial Lesotho businessman Yan ‘John’ Xie, the Alliance of Democrats (AD) party and Durban clothing company over election campaign t-shirts worth more than M1-million has landed up in the Lesotho High Court.

The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism has heard allegations that Xie agreed to pay for 50 000 t-shirts used in campaigning before the 2017 election on the AD’s behalf and then failed to do so.

The supplier, Ekhaya Promotions KZN Workwear Company lodged an application in June this year for the recovery of M1.7 million it claims it is owed. In its response, the AD denies ever reaching an agreement with Ekhaya to supply the shirts.

This is not the first time Xie has been embroiled in controversy over his ties with the AD. In 2016 a company he co-owns with former AD youth league executive member Lekhotla Matšaba controversially landed a M3.6 million tender for the supply of police uniforms.

According to the Lesotho companies register the company, Cubana Shell, was incorporated a month later. During this time, AD leader Monyane Moleleki was Minister of Police.

The Lesotho Commissioner of Police, Holomo Molibeli, previously told MNN that the police are still stuck with Cubana Shell’s uniforms because of their small sizes. Some of them are allegedly suitable only for 13-year-olds.

Neither Xie nor Moleleki answered MNN’s questions about the businessman’s relationship with the party – including why a private entrepreneur would commit to paying the AD’s debts.

Despite numerous attempts to obtain his comment, Moleleki did not answer his phone. He was also sent questions via WhatsApp.

Xie was asked about whether he agreed to pay for the t-shirts and his business ties with the AD. He did not directly answer the questions, saying he was ill in hospital and should be left alone until he had recovered.

However, MNN has heard WhatsApp and voice messages from both Moleleki and Xie, forwarded by Ekaya, acknowledging the debt.

The AD is second largest party in Lesotho’s four-party coalition government led by Thomas Thabane. Moleleki is deputy prime minister.

The party controls the ministries of education, energy, public service, home affairs, sports, development planning, and justice.

Xie, a naturalised Chinese businessman who has boasted of sponsoring “almost every politician” in Lesotho, has also enjoyed lucrative government tenders from various state entities in Lesotho, including currently AD-controlled government ministries.

Last month, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard evidence of his role in  a home affairs tender for park homes where he allegedly defrauded four local companies of a M26-million.

Representatives of one of the companies, Legends Construction, told the committee that Xie offered to fund the companies on condition that he was given a controlling stake in each of them and access to their bank accounts to protect his investments.

They said that before they had completed the work, they received a total of M26-million from home affairs. This was then immediately transferred into the account of Xie’s company.

Xie is reported to have denied being involved in this scheme.

Through Meraka Lesotho, which operates Meraka Abattoir. Xie also bagged two contracts to supply the army and correctional service with red meat in 2018.

Meraka Abattoir is Lesotho’s only such facility. Following the government’s hotly criticised decision in March 2018 to ban red meat imports, it has enjoyed an unfettered monopoly on the sale of this essential commodity.

Xie moved out of Meraka Lesotho in August 2017 – the month that he was appointed Head of Special Projects and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy and Trade Advisor on China-Asia Trade Network.

Inspection of Lesotho’s companies register shows that he transferred his 690 shares in Meraka to Xiaoyi Yao, who is understood to be his wife.

Xie has been embroiled in other controversies related to government tenders.

During the 2012/13 financial year, Auditor General Lucy Liphafa revealed that M6.3 million budgeted for the renovation of the Central, Leribe and Thaba-Tseka correctional institutions was paid to Chinese-owned companies for work they did not do.

Liphafa said that funds were distributed between Xie’s Bafani Construction and Golden Stone International Engineering Corporation, owned by Aidi Zhang and Hsueh Chieh Huang, which pocketed M2.1 million and M4.5 million respectively.

Liphafa noted the “issuance of all certificates for payments was doubtful … the scenario was an indication that the certificates were issued for work not yet done and as such, the government of Lesotho funds had been paid for services not actually rendered”.

Documents leaked to MNN also indicate that Bafani Construction landed a government contract to renovate the Botha Bothe border post. For this it was paid a total of M2.2-million, invoiced on 1 December 2014.

Last month Xie was mentioned in the controversy surrounding into the M340-million tender for the renovation of Maseru’s Mpilo Boulevard for the Ministry of Local Government.

The principal secretary for the ministry, Khothatso Tšooana, told the PAC that First Lady ‘Maisaaih Thabane and Small Business Minister Chalane Phori instructed him to reward Xie’s UNIK Construction Engineering with the boulevard tender for assisting premier Thabane.

A minister who also doubles as a businessman, Phori told Lesotho Times that he bid for this tender in partnership with UNIK and saw nothing wrong in this.

Xie is known to have offered financial assistance to Thabane and members of his party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), during their time in exile in South Africa in 2015-2017. Minister Phori was also among the ABC exiles.

Tšooana told the PAC that he defied the instruction on the tender award, which has been suspended by Lesotho’s anti-corruption body, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences, pending investigation.

The AD pledged to fight corruption when it split away from the Democratic Congress in 2016. Moleleki launched a scathing crusade against former premier Pakalitha Mosisili, promising to unite Basotho in the fight against graft.

The split saw the demise of Mosisili’s coalition government, leading to early polls in 2017.

Ekaya chief executive Rajen Naidoo told MNN that his company supplied the AD with 50 000 t-shirts for its 2017 election campaign, based on an agreement that Xie would settle the debt within two weeks.

Naidoo said Xie had since reneged on the undertaking and has not paid over the past two years. For its part, AD denies having entered into an agreement with Ekaya.

However, MNN has seen delivery notes and WhatsApp messages, and listened to voice notes between Xie, Naidoo and various AD officials, including Moleleki, that paint a different picture.

According to the delivery notes, a total of 50 000 t-shirts were delivered in different batches to the party between May 18, 2017 and May 24, 2017. With each t-shirt costing M25, the AD was billed for M1.25 million.

Some of the delivery notes seen by MNN were signed by former AD secretary general Mokhele Moletsane, while others were signed by former party executive secretary Bokang Moleko.

Moletsane told MNN all questions about Ekaya’s claims were sub judice and he could not respond to them. He insisted Xie never received favours from him in the form of tenders. “As a minister, I have no hand in the awarding of tenders,” he said.

Moleko distanced himself from the standoff.

“I wasn’t part of those who decided who to pay, or when to pay, or even privy to how we got the consignment. Some things would be purchased while others would be donated. Mine was mainly deliveries, storage, or even dispatch to constituencies under supervision of the SG [Moletsane],” Moleko said.

In more than 40 voice messages to Naidoo over the past two years, which MNN has heard, Xie promises to settle the AD debt.   But claimed he was waiting on government to pay his “construction company” first.

In one of them he is heard to say: “We hire so many Chinese; more than one year we didn’t pay them because government didn’t pay us. So they are making strike now. Every day we push

[government to pay]

.”

“Let me tell you, the government employed me in a high position but they don’t even have budget, I don’t get a salary, that’s why I still work in my [private] office.”

In another of the messages, Xie said he was expecting M600 000 from the Ministry of Finance and promised to pay Rajen M400 000, as “I have lots of debts I need to pay back”.

Xie finally refused to pay, telling Naidoo to sue the AD. “I told you to go to court. Have you still not gone to court?” Xie is heard to say.

Xie who claimed to be sick and bedridden in hospital when he was contacted, did not disown his WhatsApp messages. Instead, he begged to be left alone, claiming he was sick.

However, he said the government payments he had promised Naidoo were for work done for the previous administration. “The reason I answered you the last question is because I don’t want you to make a mistake; I don’t have any projects with this current government,” he told MNN.

Naidoo claimed that Xie “got greedy with the tenders and wanted more, but things could not fall on his way – that’s why he pulled the plug on AD”.

“I was told by one of AD ministers that Xie was paid but he refused to pay us. He even promised to buy plain t-shirts to replace ours, but we needed our money,” he said.

Explaining how the order was placed, Naidoo said that because Ekaya had previously supplied t-shirts to AD councillors, the company was contacted by “Nice” [Mohapi Nice Khofu] a close associate of Moleleki.

He said the order was placed by Khofu working with Moleleki, who connected Ekaya with Xie as the AD’s “sponsor”.

Moleleki did not answer his phone and ignored questions sent via WhatsApp.

In one of the messages, Naidoo says to Moleleki: “Sir, please help us – we are still battling with payment from John. Can you assist him from the government perspective? He is awaiting funds to come in.”

“OK Rajen! I hear you! I shall call you later today,” Moleleki replies.

In another exchange, former AD secretary Moletsane promises to help Xie by “pushing finance” to facilitate payments.

Based on this conversation, MNN asked Moletsane if Xie received favours from him because he took care of AD debts. He responded that the matter was sub judice.

In an interview, Khofu denied connecting Ekaya with Moleleki but confirmed messages between him and Naidoo in which he promised to talk to Moleleki about the Ekaya payment.

“I have nothing to do with those t-shirts. I referred him to the leader who promised to talk to him,” he said

Khofu said someone had promised to pay Naidoo on the AD’s behalf. Asked to name this individual, he hung up.

In 2017 Khofu and Moleleki were acquitted in the Lesotho High court on charges related to the fraudulent issuing of mining licences.

Ekaya’s lawyer Lesotho-based Mokone Sello, dispatched a letter of demand for payment to the AD, copied to Moleleki. The letter was received by the AD on March 22 this year.

When the AD still failed to pay, Ekaya took the matter to Lesotho High Court in June. It demanded M1.25 million for the t-shirts, as well as M462 500 in accumulated interest.

Sello said that Ekaya had been sent from “pillar to post” when it demanded its money.

In response, the AD denied Ekaya’s claims.

“The defendant denies contents herein and puts the plaintiff to the proof thereof,” it says in responding papers. “The defendant never entered into the alleged agreement in terms of which it could be liable for payment of the alleged purchase price,” the AD said

Sello is understood to be negotiating with the AD to settle the matter out of court.

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