…allegedly bribed commissioner of mines, politicians and local authorities
Lesotho Stone, a mining company that brands itself as the largest quarrier of natural sandstone products in Southern Africa, is alleged to have illegally extended the boundaries of its mining site, and secured its mining license against these boundaries, by bribing the commissioner of mines, politicians and local authorities.
The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism began investigating the question around the mine’s boundary lines after it emerged in a previous MNN investigation and a pending court case that Lesotho Stone had been “fraudulently” rewarded its mining license in 2019 based on irregular boundary lines.
MNN’s investigation has found that the boundary lines of Lesotho Stone’s quarrying site in Lekokoaneng Teyateyaneng, Berea, have indeed inexplicably and exponentially increased since it was first awarded its lease in 2003.
- According to the Acting Commissioner of Mines Mohato Moima, Lesotho Stone Enterprises was awarded an original lease for an area of 21,376m². (Moima is acting commissioner of mines while the permanent commissioner, Pheello Tjatja, is on sick leave.)
- When MNN asked the Office of the Commissioner of Mines to confirm the mine’s boundary lines, we were showed coordinates that suggest the company is operating on an extended mining site of 118,717m².
- To further confuse matters, in a report submitted to the Department of Environment by Lesotho Stone in 2019 and seen by MNN, Lesotho Stone lists its leased site as 178 000m².
This means that Lesotho Stone’s mining site has inexplicably increased over the past 20 years by anywhere between 59, 283m² and 156, 624 m², depending on the accuracy of the original lease coordinates.
MNN has learned that the office of the Commissioner of Mines does not know where the 178 000m² comes from.
MNN however also approached Tjatja for an explanation on how and why the mine site has increased so exponentially. Tjatja denied that the Lesotho Stone boundaries had been extended, rhetorically asking: “Was it an extension or a correction of boundaries? I do not think it was an extension”.
Tjatja denied knowledge of the 2019 extension, saying he only recalls an occasion in 2013 when he led a surveying task team to the quarry site to correct its boundaries.
“The plotting of coordinates did not make sense, some did not show, and they overlapped with another neighbouring mine, and we separated them,” Tjatja said.
Tjatja’s claims were, however, contradicted by Moima who is also the Principal Mining Engineer for the ministry of mining.
Moima confirmed that the company submitted an extension of its mining boundaries in 2019, the same year that it is also suspected of renewing its mining license fraudulently. This matter is currently before the courts.
The former Minister of Mining Keketso Sello confirmed to MNN that he approved the 2019 extension to Lesotho Stone’s site, but he emphasised that thorough scrutiny of the application was supposed to have been done by the Mining Board.
According to the Mines and Minerals Act, mining lease applications are approved by the minister of mining on recommendation from the Mining Board made up of the Commissioner of Mines and other technical officers.
“It is at my discretion as the minister to say yes or no, and I said yes because I saw no problem with the extension,” Sello said. On concerns that the rules were bent for Lesotho Stone to acquire the extension, Sello said he only learned about these allegations after he had approved the extension and there was therefore nothing he could do.
MNN approached Zhai Fengfu, Lesotho Stone’s shareholder and director, to ask how the company gained a site of this magnitude. He claimed he could not express himself in Sesotho or English and referred us to Motebang Phamotse, the mine’s manager.
Phamotse in turn referred us to their lawyer, saying he had only heard about the extension issue last year and did not have further details.
According to Lesotho’s company registry, Lesotho Stone is owned by Zhai Fengfu, Pan Huang, Thabiso Makepe and Shen Yao. Lesotho Stone mostly sells its sandstone locally and in neighbouring South Africa.
Mahlomola Monyokole, director general of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), which was investigating the case at the time, told MNN that officials within the Environmental Department had been paid M300,000 in bribes to approve the renewal of the company’s licence, despite the questionable boundary lines.
The ministry’s director, Motsamai Damane, who was also questioned by DCEO, told MNN: “We don’t know how Lesotho Stone got its licence because the Ministry of Mining was supposed to send it to the tourism ministry to do an environmental impact assessment, seeing that it had gone beyond its licensed boundaries.”
But the mine’s lawyer, Advocate Thabang Letsie, insisted the extension of the boundaries was concluded in 2018 without any hiccups and ahead of the company renewing its mining lease.
MNN understands that in fact in 2018, the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture suspended Lesotho Stone’s environmental clearance for failure to comply with environmental obligations.
These included improper waste management, land pollution (oil spillage), water pollution (ground and surface water) and air pollution and gaseous emissions.
When the company submitted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report in an effort to have its suspension lifted, the department learned that it had extended its site, which it described as a “new and prospecting area” in the report, according to EIA Officer, ‘Mammeli Makhate, in the Department of Environment
Lehloenya Mphanya, Lesotho Stone’s EIA consultant said an EIA report for the new area was vital because the quarry is located within a community. MNN understands that the Environmental Department was responsible for approving the EIA for the extended area before the Ministry of Mining could approve the site extension and mining lease renewal.
However, the EIA Officer Makhate said her department knew nothing of the Lesotho Stone boundary extension until they saw it in an Environmental Clearance report completed by Mphanya when the renewal and extension were already done.
Makhate says because they did not know about the extended site, they asked the company to re-do the environmental clearance with the initial boundaries. MNN has learned that despite the ongoing questions and the pending court case about the illegal extension of Lesotho Stone’s mining site, the company has not been stopped from operating.
Where the plot thickens
Apart from bribery allegations against the Environmental Department, sources have alleged to MNN that Lesotho Stone also issued a number of bribes to officials on the Mining Board, politicians and local authorities to have its mining site extended.
The Commissioner of Mines Tjatja is one of the key officials implicated in these bribery allegations. Lesotho Stone Director and shareholder, Fengfu, is alleged to have awarded the bribes.
Some of these transactions are captured in the company’s financial reports as “petty cash” withdrawals, according to a former accountant, ‘Manapo Mohale. MNN has seen these financial reports.
Speaking to MNN, Mohale said the company directors, in particular Fengfu, would unilaterally withdraw funds under the pretence that they were petty cash. To her surprise, Mohale said such funds always exceeded the company’s petty cash limits.
“More alarming is that the cash would be gone the next day,” she said, adding “dodgy” transactions such as these were not captured in the financial statements.
“He [Tjatja] was given the money in instalments. It was M25 000 at first, then M50 000, which was handed to Tjatja at the Lesotho Stone offices, which is when I realised it was him being given the money,” Mohale disclosed.
Fengfu’s lawyer, Phamotse said he could not conclusively answer these allegations as he is not based at the company on a daily basis.
When confronted, Tjatja said he never took any bribes from Lesotho Stone. “I am actually shocked because this is the first time such allegations are levelled against me,” he said.
Tjatja wanted to know who witnessed his alleged bribery and asked to see the accountant’s report. He insisted that he did not have any relationships with Lesotho Stone or its directors. “I only deal with them as a regulating officer,” he said.
Villagers neighbouring Lesotho Stone have questioned Tjatja’s interest in the mine. One villager said, “Tjatja’s connection with Lesotho Stone goes beyond his duties as commissioner of mines, he is forever at the mine”.
In addition to allegations that Tjatja received cash from Lesotho Stone, sources alleged to MNN that the former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s son, Potlako Thabane, also received M80 000 to help the company lift its EIA suspension.
According to Mohale, Potlako was handed the money in a shoebox on a Saturday. In a separate interview, Potlako confirmed receiving money from Lesotho Stone but said it was a M50 000 donation for his political campaigns.
“I approached the company to assist me with funds for All Basotho Convention (ABC) campaigns as the one responsible for the party’s sound system for rallies and conferences. The money was also for lodging during rallies, fuelling my vehicles and other expenses,” Potlako said.
According to Potlako, Lesotho Stone asked him in return to help with their EIA. Potlako alleges that he told them that this was “not his speciality” and “only offered” to connect them with someone at the National Environmental Secretariat and some companies that deal with environmental impact assessments.
Phamotse, on behalf of the mine, refused to comment (claiming the matter was sub judice) on why Lesotho Stone had engaged Potlako to assist with their environmental clearance and had paid him M50 000. “We have two cases before the High Court of Lesotho…I cannot answer anything relating to that, not even the bribery allegation,” Phamotse said.
Local authorities in the Lekokoaneng area have also been implicated in taking bribes from Lesotho Stone, with Mohale saying directors often gave the local authorities money to keep the community in check while the mine did as it pleased.
Mohale revealed that the Lekokoaneng Area Chief, ‘Masekoati Masupha, was given money branded as a “donation”. Mohale said these transactions were allegedly used to fund the graduation ceremony of Masupha’s child.
‘Makatleho Monanthane, wife of the Litšiling village chief in Lekokoaneng, told MNN that at one point after multiple attempts to get Lesotho Stone to address their concerns, they took their grievances to the ‘Mamathe chief’s office. She said that from the initial discussions, they believed they would finally get justice as a meeting that was scheduled between the community, Lesotho Stone and the area chief.
“It was a big deal for us all and we went to Ha ‘Mamathe in numbers with hope. But when we got there the meeting never commenced and we stewed in the sun until we were dismissed,” she said.
The Area Chief, ‘Masekoati Masupha, is said to have dismissed the gathering on account that “we have heard your concerns and they will be dealt with”.
Monanthane said they knew at that point that the area chief had just been handed a “black briefcase” by Lesotho Stone, something Monanthane says they have always suspected to be the case.
“There had been rumours prior to this encounter of ‘Masekoati being in Lesotho Stone’s pocket, which is why the company did as it pleased without considering us as the community,” she said.
Another former employee of Lesotho Stone, Phillip Mokhali, told MNN that although he left the company in 2014, Masupha being implicated in bribery is not new.
“I cannot prove bribery per se but I know that at one point she was gifted with sandstone bricks without paying for them and she built a huge house. What would you call that?”
Mokhali said they found this suspicious because as employees of the company were never given freebies and always had to pay for bricks.
Speaking to MNN, Masupha refused to comment on the allegations against her saying if there were unsatisfied parties to the boundary extension and how she was involved, they should express such directly to her so that she could respond officially. Phamotse also said the company could not confirm the bribery allegations without tangible evidence.