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Massive airport upgrade opens old wounds

SECHABA MOKHETHI

MASERU – In 1982, while Lesotho’s constitution was suspended under Leabua Jonathan’s government, local communities had their land expropriated without compensation and were forcibly relocated to make way for the Moshoeshoe I International Airport outside Maseru.

The current government’s plan to upgrade the airport at a total cost of M5 billion has re-opened those historical wounds and raised fears of further land grabs.

The long-delayed upgrade is intended to facilitate direct flights to and from Lesotho without having to pass through OR Tambo International Airport.

The upgrade will include a one-kilometre extension and rehabilitation of the existing runway to handle larger aircraft and construction of a new VIP terminal building.

Believing the land on which the airport was built still belongs to them, residents of 15 surrounding villages have banded together and formed a committee to demand compensation for what was taken from them 37 years ago and to protect their interests if there are further state land seizures.

The picture is complicated by the fact that the villagers do not have title deeds and the airport is now the legal owner of the land they still claim.

The government appears unclear on how to handle the dispute, with senior officials saying that a cabinet decision will be needed.

The villagers have asked for a meeting with the Minister of Public Works and Transport, Prince Maliehe.

Recalling the events of 37 years ago, the spokesperson of the villagers’ committee, Tšeliso Moroke, said his pregnant mother was about to give birth “when a bulldozer driven by men in army uniforms demolished our homes and destroyed our possessions”.

He said that people who lived in Moeaneng village knew they faced relocation, but expected to be moved to new houses, instead, they were left to seek shelter on their own.

Moroke said his mother sought refuge with her new-born child in a nearby village, as the shacks that were hurriedly erected after the demolition were often blown away by high winds.

Built in just a day from the ruins of their former houses, the villagers’ shacks were weak and porous, he said.

The houses offered as compensation were only built three years later, in 1985 but in terms of quality, they did not match the houses that had been bulldozed, Moroke said.

“My parents had a five-roomed house and a garage. As compensation they got a four-roomed one that was not planned and was shoddily constructed.”

The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism visited 11 affected households and found them in a sorry state. Some of the families who had two-roomed units now live in single rooms that are too small to accommodate a bed and other domestic utilities.

“We used to have toilets, but no longer have any,” said one of the villagers.

The villagers also lamented the loss of their fields, which they say were grabbed by the government without compensation. The hard-line approach continued after a democratically-elected government assumed power in 1993, they added.

“The owners would see strangers claiming to be government employees erecting yellow poles on their cultivated fields without consulting them,” Moroke said.

Villagers complained that the government’s approach was skewed in favour of chiefs and the royal family. They pointed out that the airport perimeter fence had been forced to change direction to accommodate Tšimo-Ea-Lira, a communal field that belonged to King Letsie I and was worked by his subjects. This field now belongs to the king.

“I remember the former principal chief of Matsieng, Seeiso Masupha, saying if there was no compensation, the field of the king – Masupha’s brother – would not be affected. That is exactly what happened,” said Moroke.

Masupha denied the claim, insisting the field was not part of the airport’s layout and that his own field next to Tsimo-Ea-Lira was partly expropriated.

Unlike the aggrieved villagers, Masupha was compensated with a field in Ha Mohasoa but he said this land “was not even a quarter” of what was taken from him.

However, he conceded there were compensation promises to landowners but if not fulfilled, “that’s neither my responsibility nor the King’s. It rests squarely on the airport,” he said.

The villagers want retrospective compensation for the land taken in 1982 as their precondition for co-operating with the government and releasing more land for the airport upgrade.

They claim some of the land earmarked for the latest upgrade – has already been sold for residential sites and houses have already been constructed on it.

Complicating the picture is the fact that the villagers do not have title deeds and that the legal owner is now the airport authority.

The area councillor, who is also a member of the Mohlakeng Community Council Land Distribution Committee, Mohau Ntlamele, confirmed the villagers have no title deeds for the land where the airport upgrades will be to built.

“After my election to the council, I met airport management, and on their map I could see that some new houses built on the land are within the airport’s boundaries. Villagers were warned against new construction, but turned a deaf ear,” Ntlamele said.

At a meeting on 15 May 2019 for villages affected by the upgrade, the airport’s general manager, Letsoaka Sekonyela, warned residents against further construction on the disputed land.

But Moroke told the meeting that the existing perimeter fence marked the limits of airport property and that it did not own land falling outside it.

“The poles (marking parts of airport reserved land) were installed without consulting land-owners,” Moroke told Sekonyela, reminding him that villagers were still hurting from broken promises after losing land under Jonathan and being denied compensation.

Sekonyela, said the government would “engage those who have encroached on airport-reserved land” before the expansion project takes off.

He estimated construction could start early next year.

Speaking to MNN on 19 June, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Mothabathe Hlalele, questioned the villagers’ demands.

“One wonders if these people are just taking chances,” he said.

Hlalele echoed Sekonyela in saying that the cabinet would give direction in resolving the impasse.

In an attempt to regain control of their fields, the villagers asked lawyer Koili Ndebele to approach former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili in 2009.

“In or about 1982, a dictatorship and oppressive regime of the late Mr Leabua Jonathan forcefully, wrongfully and unlawfully impounded the clients’ fields to build Moshoeshoe I Airport,” Ndebele’s letter reads.

He referred to South Africa’s policy, “where government is consoling victims of apartheid who were deprived of their land many years ago … compensating and/or returning such lands to the victims”.

Ndebele said Attorney-General Tšokolo Makhethe had responded that “government could not be held accountable for things that happened a long time ago”.

Ndebele had then dropped the matter.

Minister Maliehe told MNN that he had not seen the letter from villagers asking for a meeting. “I am not sure what caused this oversight, unless the letter arrived while I was still in China,” Maliehe said, promising to follow up on the issue.

The airport upgrade, which Hlalele said was between two and three years late, is intended to boost Lesotho’s foreign trade by handling direct flights from abroad.

“Once Phase 1 activities and costs are approved by the cabinet, financiers will pump in funds for the project to take off,” he said.

In addition to extending the runway and building a new VIP terminal, Phase 1 of the project would involve renovating the existing terminal building, installing navigation aids, and generally improving the quality of service at the airport.

“We will upgrade the perimeter, access and emergency roads; equip the 13.2km perimeter fence with an intruder detection system; rehabilitate Kofi Annan Road from Pioneer Circle to the airport; construct a four-lane express highway at Thota-ea-Moli; and carry out other upgrades that will elevate our airport to International Civil Aviation Organisation standards,” he said.

Hlalele said M2 billion had been earmarked for completion of Phase 1, while the estimated total cost of the project was M5 billion.”

“The European Investment Bank has pledged M1.2-billion, with other billions to be secured from Kuwait, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Abu Dhabi and Arab development funds.”

The private sector was also expected to throw its weight behind the project by investing in hotels and B&Bs at Thota-ea-Moli.

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