…company angered by foul-mouthed politician’s claims that it plotted murder of LCA board members…
…threatens to sue the BNP leader for defamation…
TELECOMMUNICATIONS giant, Vodacom Lesotho, has broken its silence over what it describes as “unprovoked, non-factual and malicious attacks” on its corporate reputation by Basotho National Party (BNP) leader and former cabinet minister, Machesetsa Mofomobe.
The company said it had noted Mr Mofomobe’s malicious attacks against it from as far back as 2019 but had elected to largely ignore them. However, the latest vitriol on the company by the garrulous and foul-mouthed politician, during the memorial service of local businessman and former Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) board member, Karabo Maitin, on 12 January 2023, had been the last straw, forcing it to speak out.
This time round, Mr Mofomobe’s attacks on Vodacom Lesotho scaled new heights after he implied that the company had killed Mr Maitin.
Mr Maitin was appointed to the LCA board in 2019 for a three year term. He died early this month at age 43 after a shot illness.
But Mr Mofomobe – without a shred of evidence – told Mr Maitin’s memorial service that Vodacom Lesotho had plotted to kill LCA board members who did not support its corporate ambitions. He did not explain why such a highly reputable company, part of an iconic listed international conglomerate with operations spanning several continents and employing hundreds of thousands of people, would need to sully its reputation by resorting to such nefarious actions.
The BNP leader claimed that he had influenced the appointment of the late Mr Maitin to the LCA board.
And he emphasized that it was that very same board, with the controversial Mamarame Matela as its chief executive officer, that had “tamed” Vodacom and stopped it from “ripping off” its subscribers’ with “exorbitant fees” for its services.
Mr Mofomobe’s own statements confirmed widely held suspicions that the LCA board would go out of its way to try and make life difficult for Vodacom whenever it was stuffed by BNP functionaries. Ms Matela – a BNP functionary at the time – is on record for trying to revoke Vodacom’s licence without regard to the devastating consequences of such a move on the country’s reputation and investment climate. The Lesotho Times was told at the time that if the bizarre plan to close down Vodacom had succeeded, the BNP, which controlled the communications ministry, would have brought in a Chinese mobile company in exchange of money to boost its sparse coffers. However, the plan did not see the light of day as the courts thwarted Ms Matela’s moves.
In his latest attack, Mr Mofomobe accused Vodacom Lesotho of capturing the state. He said the company would remain “untouchable” because it now had the executive arm of government “in its pockets”. This after its former chairperson and shareholder, Matjato Moteane, was appointed to cabinet in the wake of the 7 October 2022 elections that catapulted his Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) to power.
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“That company (Vodacom) has the majority of this country’s rulers in its pockets and if you dare touch it, you will be in trouble,” Mr Mofomobe told the memorial service.
“I know because the financial documents of that company were done by the sibling of its board’s chairperson (Moteane), which is not permissible.
“That chairperson is now a minister. I say Vodacom is still going to do as it pleases because of that. I have the smartest intelligence in this country and I told Maitin that once they go after Vodacom they would be killed,” said Mr Mofomobe, bizarrely implying Vodacom’s involvement in the former LCA board member’s death.
“There would be meetings in South Africa between Vodacom executives and the rulers of this country where millions would be exchanged. That is still going to happen,” he further claimed without providing an iota of evidence to substantiate the claims.
Interestingly, Mr Mofomobe was himself among the rulers of the country, having served as a deputy and cabinet minister in coalitions between 2012-2015 and 2017-2022. He did not explain why he did not use his party’s power in government then to try and stop the nefarious activities he claims Vodacom was engaged in.
And in reaction to Mr Mofomobe’s blistering attacks, Vodacom Lesotho’s Executive Head: Regulatory and External Affairs, Tṥepo Ntaopane, said it was very unfortunate that Mr Mofomobe had carved a career out of attacking his company on the basis of wholly untruthful allegations.
He said Vodacom Lesotho had acted and continued to act ethically and lawfully in line with its license obligations.
“…..As a good corporate citizen, the company works closely with the Lesotho Government through its elected officials irrespective of political identity in pursuance of issues of mutual interest and benefit to Basotho,” Mr Ntaopane said.
He added: “We wish to categorically dismiss the utterances by Mr Mofomobe as frivolous and devoid of any factual basis. These conspiracy theories are not only dangerous and untrue, but they have been made with malicious intent to tarnish the reputation and image of Vodacom Lesotho.
“What we can state is that the allegations of state capture are baseless, devoid of any truth and made with malicious intent to tarnish Vodacom Lesotho’s image…”
He said Vodacom could not comment on what had triggered Mr Mofomobe’s latest outburst. But they had taken note of his pattern of “unprovoked malicious attacks and baseless allegations” which were not only “injurious and harmful to our image and good reputation, but which also regrettably serve to diminish Lesotho as an investment destination whereas we should all promote investment and job creation for more Basotho”.
“Vodacom rejects with contempt, the malicious and false claims that ‘meetings were held in South Africa between Vodacom and powerful people in government… to plan the assassination of members of the then board of directors’ (of LCA) and shall at the right time put Mr Mofomobe to the proof thereof,” Mr Ntaopane added.
“Vodacom Lesotho like any other big corporate, has business relationships with the government and engages government on an ongoing basis on wide ranging matters from policy issues that impact the sector to alignments of initiatives to support the national developmental agenda and shall continue to do so. This does not imply that Vodacom Lesotho controls the government and these claims are rejected as baseless.
“Vodacom Lesotho will, at the appropriate time, take the necessary steps in law to protect its name and business. Though we are not litigious and have a bias to serving our treasured customers, our rights remain reserved,” he said.
Mr Ntaopane noted that Mr Mofomobe’s attacks on his company had surfaced way back in 2019. At the time, Mr Mofomobe was the BNP deputy leader and Foreign Affairs ministry deputy minister. His then party leader Thesele Maseribane was Communications, Science and Technology minister.
During that year Mr Mofomobe made a post on Facebook asking his followers to vote on which brand they preferred between Vodacom and MTN.
The motive behind Mr Mofomobe’s poll was unclear. It was nonetheless puzzling as MTN, a South African telecommunications giant, has never been a service provider in Lesotho. He had subsequently deleted the post. Mr Mofomobe had continued with his attacks until his latest outburst at the Maitini memorial service.
Apart from accusing Vodacom of committing murder and capturing the state – without providing a shred of evidence – he also accused Vodacom of influencing the appointment of LCA board members. This is despite that Mr Mofomobe himself had just boasted of having influenced the appointment of Mr Maitini to the LCA board and praised him for having worked with other BNP deployees to ensure hell for Vodacom.
Mr Ntaopane rejected the allegations.
“Any minister has the discretion to appoint whoever they deem fit as long as they satisfy the requirements of the LCA Act and attendant good governance principles….,” he said.
Despite its important role in Lesotho’s economy, Vodacom had indeed experienced hell during Ms Matela’s tenure. She had accused the company of state capture as she tried to revoke its operational licence.
She alleged that the company had bribed then First Lady, ‘Maesaiah Thabane, with M2 million to get her fired from the LCA.
Ms Matela’s contract with the LCA expired on 31 March 2022 – the day on which she also penned a ‘poisonous” email to Vodacom’s parent company, Vodafone, in the United Kingdom.
In the letter she accused its subsidiaries in South Africa and Lesotho, of funding regime change in Lesotho. Among her litany of equally unsubstantiated allegations was that Vodacom Lesotho was not only involved in state capture to avoid being penalised by her regulatory body but was also engaged in scorched earth tactics to sabotage its main competitor, Econet Telecom Lesotho, to protect its dominant market share.
The LCA, under Ms Matela’s watch, had before then fined Vodacom Lesotho M134 million for what it said were serious infractions since 2015 including “submitting audited financial statements that were unaccompanied by a certification issued by an independent external auditor”.
Vodacom was ordered to immediately pay M40, 2 million, representing 30 percent of the entire fine imposed on it. The remaining M93, 8 million (70 percent) was suspended for five years on condition that the company does not commit further offences in contravention of its regulatory obligations within that period.
The fine ought to have been paid by 7 October 2020. When it was not paid, Ms Matela and her board decided to revoke Vodacom’s operating licence the following day.
This prompted Vodacom to file an urgent High Court application for an interim order nullifying the revocation. The interim order was duly granted by the now late Justice Thamsanqa Nomngcongo paving the way for Vodacom to continue providing services pending the finalisation of its application for a final order against the LCA decision.
The arguments in the litigation were heard to finality by Justice Keketso Moahloli on 6 December 2020 when he reserved judgement.
Adv Matela was then suspended in June 2021 by then Communications, Science and Technology Minister Keketso Sello. She was suspended for alleged corruption in the awarding of a M500 million tender to South African company, Global Voices Group (GVG) to supply the LCA with a Compliance Monitoring and Revenue Assurance system.
Adv Matela alleged that she had been victimised for refusing to solicit M3 million bribe from GVG on behalf of Mr Sello to approve the tender. She also accused Mr Sello of sexually assaulting her. She further claimed that then Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro had shielded Mr Sello in what seemed like her practice of throwing mud at anyone who stood in her way.
A tribunal was set up by Dr Majoro to probe her fitness to remain in office. However, her three-year contract with the LCA ended on 31 March 2021.
At the time of her departure, the LCA – Vodacom judgement was still pending before Justice Moahloli. The two parties eventually reached an out of court settlement, in terms of which Vodacom would pay M4 million, in November 2021.
Mr Ntaopane could not say whether Mr Mofomobe and Adv Matela were acting in concert when the later had launched her war on Vodacom.
“While we are aware that both Mr Mofomobe and Ms Matela were both BNP members at the time, we have made no linkages between them. If they acted in concert, only they can confirm.
“We are also aware through Mr Mofomobe’s own unfortunate utterances at the late Karabo Maitin’s memorial and funeral service that Ms Matela was appointed in the role (of LCA CEO) by the BNP when Mr Mofomobe was the party’s deputy leader. We have made no assumptions and assume no party level linkages. We cannot comment on any relationship beyond what the parties stated in their representations,” Mr Ntaopane said.
However, Lesotho Times sources maintained that Vodacom’s woes had been a direct result of the BNP’s hatred of the telecoms giant and its refusal to bow down to the party’s expectations for financial help. The BNP had tried to use its influence at communications to try and extort money from Vodacom to boost its waning coffers, the sources said. It had alternatively hoped it could close the company and replace it in Lesotho with an unnamed Chinese company that would pay it kickbacks. The way for the BNP to achieve its ends was thus to use its control of the communications ministry to stuff the LCA board with its functionaries to push its agenda. Ms Matela herself had been appointed by then BNP leader, Mr Maseribane.
But Vodacom could not possibly have succumbed to the BNP’s covert and overt attempts of extortion, our sources said. This because listed companies – which are accountable to a wide array of shareholders – generally desist from such unsavoury practices. They operate under the glare of the whole world and inter-continental conglomerates like Vodafone, Vodacom’s parent, risk dire consequences if they are caught up in bribery storms.
For example, the international mining conglomerate, Glencore pls, was recently fined billions of maloti in Britain, the US and Brazil after it was found to have paid bribes to several African politicians to access commodities. Most listed international conglomerates thus generally desist from corrupt malpractices in fear of such consequences. It is almost unheard of that a company like Vodacom can even contemplate murder.
“Machesetsa can bark until he foams around his whole face, he is never going to be able to extort a penny from Vodacom…,” said a source who did not want to be named.
“It seems his whole strategy has been to attack Vodacom until someone there notices him and gets Vodacom to offer him money to keep quite. That is an awkward way of trying to fundraise for a party. It won’t happen….”
Even though Vodacom has not sued the BNP leader, Mr Ntaopane said the company’s rights remained fully reserved.