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Angry Mafeteng villagers threaten to derail SOLAR project over compensation demands

Pascalinah Kabi

MAFETENG villagers are up in arms with the government for allegedly failing to compensate them for their land which will be the construction site for the proposed M2, 8 billion solar power generation plant in the district.

The angry villagers accuse successive governments of making empty promises to compensate them over the years since plans were first announced to set up the power generation project.

They had threatened to disrupt yesterday’s sod-turning ceremony at the site of the project to mark the beginning of construction work. This publication established that they only allowed the ceremony which was officiated by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro to proceed after receiving assurances from Energy and Meteorology Minister Mohapi Mohapinyane that they would be compensated within two weeks. It is however, not clear how much each villager is supposed to be paid for the loss of their land.

Mr Mohapinyane made the commitment to pay the villagers in a meeting with Likhoele Principal Chief Lerotholi Seeiso, area chief Fako Seeiso and Councilor Sebofi Moeketsi early this week.

The Ramarothole site of the project falls under the Likhoele area which is under Principal Chief Seeiso’s jurisdiction.

Addressing the gathering at the sod-turning ceremony yesterday, Principal Chief Seeiso said Ramarothole villagers and the neighbouring Ha Lempetje, Raliemere communities, which would also be affected by the construction works, were unhappy with the government for failing to compensate them.

“There is a signed agreement in place indicating that people who lost their land to the project will be compensated but I think something went wrong along the way,” Principal Chief Seeiso said.

“People are now realising that their fields have been taken away from them without any compensation. A hungry person cannot listen to reason. Field owners and the people of Mafeteng receive this project with both hands but they have not been compensated.

“They have no food on the table for the whole of this year. It is my duty to defend any government of the day and I hope that this is not taken as a criticism but it is wrong that field owners have not been paid. I urge you, honourable prime minister to instruct the minister of energy to look upon the field owners with a merciful eye,” Principal Chief Seeiso said to cheers from the villagers.

Several villagers also told this publication that they were unhappy with successive governments over unfulfilled compensation promises dating back to 2010.

“Government has been making empty promises since 2010, saying they will compensate us for the land that we lost to the project. We demand our money,” said an old man on condition of anonymity.

“We had a meeting with the minister (Mohapinyane) on Monday. We told him to stop today’s launch because we would disrupt it. He pleaded with us to allow the ceremony to go ahead while talks over our compensation continue. He promised that the government will pay us in the next two weeks. I hope he is telling the truth because we will not hesitate to stop this project if we are not paid in two weeks’ time,” he said.

Counselor Moeketsi said the Monday meeting was held after Principal Chief Seeiso insisted that it was wrong for the government to go ahead with the sod-turning ceremony without addressing villagers’ grievances.

“We received a letter from government last week informing us of today’s sod-turning. Chief Seeiso engaged the government on this issue and told the ministry that they cannot disregard villagers’ grievances and go ahead with the sod-turning. It was then agreed that there should be a meeting on Monday.

“Villagers were very angry but raised their concerns respectfully. Chief Seeiso and the minister contained the situation. The villagers were told that the government will urgently address their concerns. People have been promised compensation for the past ten years and some of them are unable to farm on their land,” Mr Moeketsi said.

Speaking at the sod-turning ceremony, Mr Mohapinyane admitted that the Monday meeting with the villagers had been a heated affair.

“Honourable Prime Minister, allow me to inform you and all attendees that we were here on Monday with my staff, the Likhoele Principal Chief and district administrator to respond to the complaints which had been rightly raised by the principal chief. Honourable Prime Minister, I would like to thank the people for agreeing to allow us to go ahead with the sod-turning.

“This is because on Monday they were telling us that the project would not go ahead. Their complaint was valid. They said they have heard and seen that villagers in other places where big projects are constructed never got compensation. We discussed the matter and we agreed that we will meet again on Monday to discuss land compensation. It is my expectation that the honourable finance minister will pay the Mafeteng people within two weeks,” Mr Mohapinyane said.

On his part, Dr Majoro said: “I am happy with the energy minister’s statement that land owners must be compensated in two weeks because they have lost assets which they were making a living out from and they have every right to be compensated”.

“I am also happy that the energy minister has instructed his finance colleague to pay in two weeks but since I am the one with the authority to instruct, I instruct the ministers of finance; energy as well as development planning minister to work together to ensure that the Ramarothole villagers are compensated for their land. You must carry out this assignment in a way that will not cause any problems among the contractors and villagers,” Dr Majoro said.

However, Mr Sophonea said he could not commit to paying the villagers within the two weeks timeframe.

He said the compensation were still to be worked out by the energy ministry which was in charge of the solar project.

“It is the duty of the ministry of energy to work out how much the people of Mafeteng must be paid. I cannot commit myself by saying I am going to pay in two weeks but I have to go and look at the finances and see what can be done,” Mr Sophonea said.

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