Irate Mantashe ruffles feathers in Lesotho



MASERU – South Africa’s mines minister, Gwede Mantashe, last Friday ruffled feathers in government and left many Basotho clucking tongues when he publicly accused Lesotho of sabotaging his country’s economy through illegal gold diggers.

This followed the latest incident in the now cyclical series of tragedies of illegal Basotho miners dying en masse in deep disused mines of the Republic of South Africa.

Mantashe’s accusation has send authorities in the two countries heads spinning and potentially butting heads.

Last Thursday South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) issued a media alert stating that Lesotho had notified SA on May 18 about the death of 31 Basotho illegal miners who perished in a disused mine (formerly operated by Harmony Mine) in Welkom, Free State.

The media alert also stated that the department was working with the former mine owners to assist Lesotho with the retrieval and repatriation of the remains.

The next day the DMRE minister, Mantashe, came out raging on national television, putting the blame for the tragedy on the doorstep of the Lesotho government.

Mantashe said Maseru was simply not interested in joining his country to resolve the problem and put an end to the spiralling catastrophe.

He claims when he tried to engage Lesotho’s Minister of Natural Resources, Mohlomi Moleko, at the February 2023 edition of annual international mining summit hosted by South Africa, the Mining Indaba, the latter “ran for cover.”

“This,” said the frothing Mantashe “confirmed our view that this was economic sabotage, and the dead men were heroes, soldiers dying in combat.”

The SA minister said his government had received a weird message from Lesotho’s Prime Minister, Ntsokoane Matekane, essentially ordering Pretoria to allow illegal compatriots to recover the bodies of Basotho from the mines.

Mantashe took exception to the alleged order from Matekane.

He was peeved that South Africa got the message through Maseru because the tragedy was reported to Maseru and not his country’s authorities.

In his media briefing during a visit to the scene on Monday this week, Mantashe was adamant that instead of being enlisted to help, the surviving men should be arrested on sight as they are “criminals”.

Undiplomatic fit of rage

But on Tuesday, June 27 Minister Moleko told a media briefing in Maseru that indeed they met at his instance with Minister Mantashe at the Mining Indaba, so it was disingenuous of him to say he dodged him.

However, he didn’t get into the matter of the rescue. Instead Moleko said he spoke to him about the M32 billion outstanding owed to former miners which remains in the hands of fund managers in South Africa.

Of this about M12 billion was due to Basotho of Lesotho and if Mantashe as Minister of Mining facilitated for such to be speedily remitted to Lesotho it would alleviate the ravages of unemployment and stem the flow of job hungry men to the derelict mines, adding he had said the same in April as special envoy to Pretoria.

“Indeed, this is what motivated me to enter politics,” he said.

Meanwhile, in an interview on South African television on Tuesday this week, Foreign Affairs minister Lejone Mpotjane echoed the issues of Lesotho’s depressed economy as contributing to illegal miners’ going to SA to eke out a living but strongly took exception to Mantashe’s claims that Lesotho was economically sabotaging its neighbour .

Mpotjoane, told Newzroom Afrika that this was an inherited problem but governmemt was committed to tackling it through growing numerous industries that would generate employment and absorb the desperate males who seek refuge in the dead mines.

High unemplpyment lay at the centre of Basotho’s own contrubution in the illegal mining system, he said.

He said the word “sabotage” used by Mantashe was too strong. Mpotjane said while he understands it could have been used in a spur of anger or frustration, he believes it was “too harsh because it would suggest that this is a formal or government-led and decided act in Lesotho. We don’t support such activities (illegal mining).”

His government valued relations with South Africa and didnt support criminality of zama-zama, he said, and that they had been in continuous engagement with the South African government and regulators and the company to get past this immediate challenge and bring all players, including the buyers of the product, to arrive at a long-term solution.

Mpotjoane said he hoped South Africa’s cabinet would engage Minister Mantashe over his unsettling remarks.

In interview with Public  Eye on Wednesday this week, Minister Moleko said he took interest in the matter when he attended a regional conference dubbed high-level consultative meeting on unclaimed benefits in SADC of Southern Africa Resource Watch in March 2022.

This was just before the formation of his Revolution for Prosperity party. At that meeting he met Mohapi of Justice for Miners, whereas the expected labour minister of Lesotho was not in attendance, and he feared that the funds were at risk of being swallowed by institutions which had temporary authority of custody over them in transit.

As of now, he said, he has not yet put it to cabinet but consideration could be given to a spectrum of possibilities, including establishing a sovereign fund or a sovereign fund or projects related to the skills of persons who are former miners. These are the ones who are mostly attracted by the zama-zamas since they have no options to fall back on and there is need to provide them with a guarantee for establishment of other forms of business.

He was said there is need to be in touch with the likes of the Southern Africa Miners Association which coordinates efforts around the subject on a SADC scale.

Billions at stake

Booi Mohapi, executive director of the Lesotho Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and also a member of the Justice for Miners campaign, says funds owed to these SADC men is estimated at between M60 and M70 billion of which the 12 billion has been identified as belonging to Basotho.

It comprises M10 billion for untraceable individuals and M2 billion belonging to those who are traceable and can be reached with the help of the likes of the Department of Labour but the government of Lesotho is not behaving responsibly.

“It is that fund of the unknown which we are suggesting could be repatriated to the government of Lesotho to initiate job creation projects.

“We are not saying this would completely get rid of outward migration, legal and illegal, but that would take care of the choiceless migrants,” he says.

Delayed rescue

Media reports said anecdotal reports claimed there were large numbers of men besides the dead, commonly known as the zama-zama (Zulu for trying one’s luck) still roaming the underground.

Mantashe rejected media suggestions that the men underground could be of varied nationalities in the southern Africa region, despite a plethora of reports on activities in derelict mines in South Africa.

Sello Dithebe, spokesperson to Free State Premier added the provincial government’s weight to the effort saying they would lend all assistance within their means once the national ministry gave the green light.

The Lesotho prime minister’s spokesperson, Thapelo Mabote, on Friday, June 23 denied the charge of nonchalance of his government, saying Matekane’s reaching out with the suggestion of volunteers was a gesture of active concern.

Local social artist Moeketsi “Paco” Ramone said: “We are being ritually sacrificed at the unholy altar of incompetence, ineptitude and ignorance!”

South Africa’s former Statistician-General and director of Economic Modelling Academy, Dr Pali Lehohla, said it was disingenuous of Minister Mantashe to blame Lesotho for a problems that was essentially created by the absence of a just transition from the boom of the golden years that put South Africa on the map as the world’s biggest gold producer,

He said the bygone era of success in SA mines was carried on the shoulders of men from Lesotho, former Transkei and other countries of the region for slave wages.

Mines rehabilitation

Mohapi says the South African state’s near-absent enforcement of regulations governing the sealing of abandoned mines and the mines’ rapid change of hands and subcontracting to evade tax, among others, should be blamed.

This, he says, left the door wide open for informal fortune seekers where these men were in turn increasingly used in active mines by the mine operators themselves to bypass the taxman.

Advocate Lekhetho Rakuoane, who led a rescue effort bringing home similar victims in 2010 said back then an allowance of cooperative mining on these mines was being considered but its fate is unknown.

“That was first the most horrific accident because it was more than 100 people who were killed by methane gas. Ntate Nthane (Lesotho trucking, construcion, mining businessman) bought 100 coffins and I brought back 60 people without government assistance. The difference then was that the people in question were already out of the mine.

“So I was working with police without any government involvement on either side. At that time there was a talk of allowing ho khoahlapisa khauta (scavenge) using cooperative method but that it seems to have failed,” Rakuoane said.

On Monday this week some organised locals in Welkom told the media they were still awaiting state permits for that project. Some among them decried the delay as they claimed the zama-zamas had become the mainstay of a dilapidated local economy and something was needed in its place.  

Contempt for Basotho

The All Basotho Convention (ABC) publicist and parliamentarian, Montoeli Masoetsa, is a former National Union of Mineworkers operative during the 1980s when South African president Cyril Ramaphosa was Secretary-General before he was succeeded by Mantashe.

Masoetsa said on a Maseru radio station on Saturday, June 24, that it depends what weight a minister who will take up issue with South Africa will have “because they take Lesotho like their marginal local council”.

“What comes to mind is what weight does he have in regional struggle politics and whether they have heard about you before,” he added.

Incidentally, addressing the 9th Provincial Congress of the Western Cape province of the African National Congress (ANC) past Sunday June 25, the ruling party’s secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula, took a potshot at the Mountain Kingdom, saying when supepowers like the US spoke, South Africa had to listen, unlike being ruffled by something like Lesotho.

Mohapi says migration is a global phenomenon which transcends nationalities.

“Migration is an age-old and global phenomenon where you still have a lot of South Africans in the highlands of Lesotho in the mines and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

“At least such migrants of choice would migrate with better skills developed local industries and better pay opportunities abroad.”

On the quesion of the fierce, armoury-grade weapons the zama-zama allegedly wield, minister Mpotjane told SA media earlier this week that “there are allegations that they are supplied by our own army and police,” but Lesotho’s minister of police and that of South Africa were seized with getting to the bottom of that, so he couldn’t say he knew where they originated from.

‘Judicial sabotage’

National University of Lesotho political scientist, Tlohang Letsie, told this paper in a seperate interview that if the logic of Mantashe could be followed Lesotho could very well charge South Africa with judicial sabotage.

This is because criminals commit heinous crimes here for which they have become quite notorious and then take refuge in South Africa and are not easily repatriated to face the sanction of law in Lesotho.

Writings on the subject note that turf wars and need for personal protection has given rise to “armies” of heavily armed gangs in the tradition of the fierece marasheea gangs who arose as Basotho protectors on the mines after the Second World War and have taken a totally gruesome profile of murderous criminality. 

In the past 30 years these gangs became closely associated with Basotho accordion music famo groups, executing rival artistes.

While the association with the ABC and the Democratic Congress of some gangs of men of blankets is now an open secret, both parties which were in government in the past, including the last coalition, are now not part of the present ruling coalition, so any attempt to remotely link the present government with such criminals is preposterous.

Although there have been arrests and convictions relating to transfer of arms from the Lesotho security forces to these groups, such legend has not extended to association of the groups with the zama zamas.

Though only partially appreciated, Mpotjoane’s remaks in this connection excited immediate criticism in some local analytical and activist circles.

Political commentator Tlohang Letsie told this paper “That response threw me. I pinched myself a little. But when I came down I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he knew where the question was leading to so he was trying to be preemptive.I agree wholly that he shouldn’t have said that.

“But like I suggest he was suspecting the next question was going to be on the guns disappearing from the Lesotho’s security agents.”

Who arms marauding gangs?

A member of the Police Complaints Authority who cannot be identified said: “The simple answer should be we don’t know as the government. As he expands he should say we are worried as government that they always appear with such guns.”

“Lesotho has no arms manufacturer. It’s an enclave within South Africa.  That’s the scenario he should have painted,” says a retired journalist who prefers to remain unidentified.  

Interim executive director of the Lesotho Council of NGOs, Sekonyela Mapetja, on the other hand, said that the minister had the benefit of the doubt of mudied waters of bilateral relations in the nation’s murky image projected by Mantashe, and should have known better.

In a historic turn of events Lesotho Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro in 2021 sent a special mission to Pretoria to atone for Lesotho ctizens’ notorious excesses in that country’s mining towns and townships, following a township tavern gun raid by suspected Basotho “blanket men” gang members, which left 16 people dead.

Recent television reports said the case was abandoned after the surviving witnesses withdrew fearing for their lives.

After the incident, leaders of the Terene famo  group associated with the formerly ruling ABC was reported meeting South African police minister, Bheki Cele, and surrendering its members names in other incidents, but none from their ranks were named here.

Martin Ewi of South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies, told Newsroom Afrika that there was need for a full-scale investigation that would canvass details on the sources of illegal arms and if there is any role of the government of Lesotho.

Ewi says Minister Mantashe was expressing frustration and helplessness but SA must engage its neighbours, since every country had its criminals which don’t operate within it’s borders alone and states can’t officially account for them.

He said he had done operational work on illegal migration between the two countries and found co-operation very slim, and awareness on both sides minimal, and the same could be true of the zama-zama case.

Bilateral ties

On Wednesday June 28 Minister Mpotjoane told Public Eye that relations between the two countries were not affected by the outburst of Minister Mantashe and Maseru is of the view that he was speaking for himself and not for the government of South Africa.

He said the zama-zama factor was an ever-present talking point in regular interaction between the two countries and always looms as a potential distraction in the progress of a spectrum of aspects of this relationship but the two countries were on the same page and maintained open minds towards its resolution.

He maintained that there was only one line of communication between Maseru and Pretoria, which was between the respective offices of foreign minister in the two countries

Pronouncements of the sectoral ministers outside this conduit, he added, were not representative of the status of relations between the two countries.

Mpotjoane said this latest tantrum backfired on Mantashe himself as was seen in his forced follow-up press conference at the mine immediately after that outburst and his more conciliatory tone while there.

He said he raked in the military and police connection to zama-zama arms supply because it was mentioned in the portfolio committee member’s remarks carried in the backdrop to his interview, and didn’t mean to validate it.

The minister continued that the miners can only have a connection with Lesotho because that is their home, of course, and when their next of kin report them as hit by tragedy abroad,  whatever the circumstances, their government is obliged to act.

By the time of going to print communications minister and government spokesperson, Nthati Moorosi, had not respond to questions despite promising to do so.

Unhinged Mantashe

The South African DIRCO chief of diplomatic communication, Clayson Moyela told the media on Wednesday this week that relations between the two countries were historical and remained solid.

He said the ties cannot be unravelled by Mantashe’s remarks which were peaking to matters of criminality, the purview of law enforcement agencies.

Mantashe is fast gaining notoriety as a self-willed, intractable and  unhinged minister.

In the week of these antics he was reported by SA’s mainstream national media as snubbing his boss in the so-called just energy transition issue in that country.

He snubbed an international forum where he was scheduled to sign a tripartite memorandum with two European countries, until foreign minister Naledi Pandor appended her signature on his behalf.

This week in Welkom he told the media it was not in his nature to sign things he hadn’t read.

Many commentators have put South Africa’s murky energy crisis plan on his doorstep, opining that his stategic differences with his boss and the latter’s inability to eyeball him spelt doom for the country.

Indeed the appointment of electricity minister, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, was seen as heading off an assured fallout from a glaring need to fire Mantashe, who is seen as Ramaphosa’s pillar in a fractiously divided ruling party’s NEC.

He is widely credited with pulling Ramaphosa from the brink of a kneejerk resignation following a damning report about his private commercial activities.

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