Thousands of jobs at risk

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  • as murders of foreign business owners escalate and,
  • key investors threaten to abandon Lesotho over safety concerns…

’Marafaele Mohloboli

THOUSANDS of jobs in the country’s textile industry and other sectors are on the line with exasperated investors threatening to quit the country over the spike in murders and other violent crimes against foreign businesspeople particularly those of Chinese origin.

Association of Chinese Enterprises in Lesotho chairperson, Wilson Li, this week warned of the likelihood of Chinese investors closing shop following an increase in murders of foreign business people particularly of Chinese origin. The latest such murder is that of Chinese businesswoman, Juli Lihong, who was gunned down over the weekend at Ha Tikoe, Maseru.

Last Friday’s murder of the 49-year-old Ms Lihong is the second such in a week after the 14 October 2020 killing of another Chinese woman, Peng Yunfang, near Maseru Mall where she had gone to celebrate her birthday with her friends.

Ms Lihong ran a supermarket business in Maseru while Ms Yunfang was employed at one of the leading textile factories in Maseru. Some senior executives in the textiles sector who spoke on condition of anonymity also said they were considering abandoning the country for safer destinations if the police and government did not address their safety concerns.

All in all, there have been three murders of Chinese nationals in the space of six weeks. Last month, a well-known Chinese doctor, Tianshen Chen, was stabbed to death at his surgery in Mafeteng.

“The rate of crime is very scary and it is going to chase away investors,” Mr Li said in an interview with the Lesotho Times this week. He added that they had held meetings with representative associations of other foreign nationals who had also warned that they could abandon Lesotho for safer investment destinations if the government and police did not urgently act to address their safety concerns.

He said they met with Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro and the police command and pleaded with them to urgently address their safety concerns following the spike in murders and other violent crimes.

Dr Majoro and Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli echoed Mr Li and other foreign nationals’ concerns, saying the increase in violent crimes particularly against Chinese nationals was unacceptable and had to be stopped as this sent the wrong signals of Lesotho as an unsafe destination for foreign investors.

Speaking on the latest murder of Ms Lihong, deputy police spokesperson, Sub-Inspector ‘Mareabetsoe Mofoka said Ms Lihong died after being shot at several times by four unidentified gunmen while she was travelling in a vehicle with her husband shortly after leaving their Ha Tikoe business premises.

“The gunmen shot at them several times and Ms Lihong was later pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. Her husband was lucky to escape unharmed.  The alleged killers fled before they had taken anything from the couple. They got away in a Honda Fit vehicle which had no registration numbers. Some shells of a 9mm pistol were found at the scene of the crime. No one has been arrested yet but police investigations are ongoing,” Sub- Inspector Mofoka said.

Yesterday, Commissioner Molibeli said they were extremely worried about the killings which were likely to scare away investors.

He said the police command had held some meetings and another one was lined up for yesterday to come with a plan to deal with the crimes.

“We are greatly concerned about these killings and we are already working to address this matter as it is scaring away investors. The most common crime against Chinese nationals is that of armed robberies followed by murder with intention to rob.

“We have held meetings and we are having another one today (yesterday) to come up with a plan on how best to address this issue.

“We are not just worried about the murders of foreign nationals but also those of Basotho which are also high.

“We are also appealing to the business community to avoid keeping or moving around with cash. Perhaps if they do more electronic transfers than cash transactions, the rate of robberies and killings will go down,” Commissioner Molibeli said in an interview with this publication.

His remarks followed Dr Majoro’s weekend comments, saying the reports of killings of foreign nationals were a worrisome departure from the founding values of the Basotho nation based on peace and hospitality to foreigners.

“These days we are getting reports of killings of foreign nationals, especially the Chinese, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans.

“We are gravely concerned about the killings because this is not like us as Basotho. We are a peace-loving nation but some Basotho have departed from these founding values and this behaviour is unacceptable.

“Last week, Chinese nationals visited my office to register their concerns and these killings are impacting negatively on the investors and the economy,” Dr Majoro said.

On his part, Mr Li bemoaned the weekend murder of Ms Lihong, saying it was merely the latest in the growing list of killings and violent crimes against foreign nationals in the country.

“Just last month on 15 September, a Chinese doctor was killed in Mafeteng. Two weeks ago, on 14 October, a Chinese woman was killed at Maseru Mall after celebrating a birthday with a friend. Now, a Chinese businesswoman (Lihong) has been killed at Ha Tikoe in a botched robbery attempt,” Mr Lee said, adding that last week alone, there had been four robberies at different Chinese-owned businesses.

“The rate of killings is very worrisome. We have witnessed killings before but 2020 is the worst year. We understand that Covid-19 has affected livelihoods and people are hungry. But killing other people is not going to change anything.

“We held a meeting with Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro and the police management where we raised our concerns about the rate of crime which is extremely scary. It is going to chase away investors.

“We also held virtual meetings with other associations of foreign nationals to see how best our concerns can be addressed with the help of government.

“We are now headed towards Christmas and we are worried as to what is going to happen to us, especially those in the business sector as there are always robberies. We think this year it is going to be worse,” Mr Li said.

Chinese nationals have made significant investments in the retail and textiles sector. Lesotho has developed into one of Africa’s largest exporters of textile products as a result of the competitive edge offered by the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), first passed by the United States government in 2004.

AGOA allows a select group of African countries, including Lesotho, to export goods including textile products duty free into the US.

As a result, the textile industry has become the lifeblood of the economy with more than 45 000 people directly employed in the sector and thousands more employed in downstream industries.

However, the growing safety concerns threaten the long-term viability of the industry as well as that of other sectors which rely on foreign investment.

A year ago, senior executives at two of the leading textile companies in Maseru warned that they could quit the country if their safety is not guaranteed. This after their vehicles were shot at by unknown gunmen in Maseru on the stretch of road between the Pioneer Mall circle and the golf club.

The company executives, all of them of Asian origin and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were ambushed and carjacked by the gunmen who forcibly drove them to automated teller machines (ATMs) in the industrial area and withdrew money from their accounts.

They said this was not the first time they had been subjected to violent crimes and despite reporting the previous cases to the police, none of the perpetrators had been brought to book.

They said the attacks on them and the overall deteriorating security situation had forced them to weigh their options and despite their “love for Lesotho” built over more than two decades of investment, they were considering moving to more stable countries like Mauritius, Tanzania and Angola.

These countries are said to be cheaper and closer to the export markets with ports of their own as opposed to landlocked Lesotho. More importantly they offer better security against violent crimes such as shootings and armed robberies.

A key shareholder in the two companies even flew into the country in the aftermath of the incident. The investor told this publication that they were a market leader in the textile industry with more than 26 years of experience in Lesotho as well as operations in countries such as Mexico, Bangladesh and Taiwan. He said their business spanned five companies in Lesotho with the first having been established in 1991.

He said despite the emergence of new, cheaper and stable alternative investment destinations such as Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia which had previously been blighted by civil wars, they had stuck to their guns and committed to Lesotho because of the strong bond they share with workers, government and related industries.

However, he said all that was now at risk.

The investor said the only thing keeping them in Lesotho at a time of political uncertainty and escalating production costs were the relations they had established with workers and other industries in more than 20 years since they first set up shop. He said while they valued these relationships, this could not however, be at the expense of their safety.

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