DCEO weaponised against political rivals: Khaketla

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FORMER Finance Minister ‘Mamphono Khaketla made media headlines in 2016 after she was sensationally accused of attempting to solicit a M4 million bribe from a joint venture company shortlisted for a multimillion-maloti vehicle fleet tender.

What made her position even more untenable was the fact that the allegations were made by the then prominent members of her Democratic Congress (DC) party. Then DC youth league leader, Thuso Litjobo, and his then secretary-general, Letuka Chafotsa, both claimed that Dr Khaketla had demanded a M4 million bribe from Lebelonyane Fleet Solutions, a joint venture company that had been shortlisted for the lucrative fleet tender.

The government cancelled the tender process in June 2016, opting to instead extend its original six month contract with Bidvest into a new four-year contract for the South African company even though it had not bid for the cancelled tender.

Despite her spirited denials of what she said were “baseless lies” against her, Dr Khaketla was charged with corruption by the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) in June 2017.

For the next five years, hers became a gruelling, emotionally and financially draining war to clear her name.

The DCEO eventually pulled out of the case after one of their witnesses died and another two became hostile. A fortnight ago, Dr Khaketla was finally freed of that sword of Damocles which had been hanging over her head. This after High Court Judge Molefi Makara acquitted her on the grounds of the DCEO and Director of Public Prosecutions’ failure to prosecute the case against her.

While the court victory is a massive welcome development, it is not yet uhuru for Dr Khaketla. In an interview with the Lesotho Times (LT) this week, Dr Khaketla spoke of the new war that she still has to fight: that of picking up the pieces and rebuilding her life. Now 62, Dr Khaketla conceded that she is no longer a spring chicken and jobs may be harder to come by as she inches inexorably towards pensionable age. Below are excerpts of the interview:

LT: You were recently acquitted on charges of soliciting a M4 million bribe for a major government fleet management contract in 2016. How does it feel to have those damaging charges off your shoulders? Kindly take us through the entire experience.

Khaketla: It is all a bitter-sweet experience. It is sweet that I have finally been acquitted. When you have a case hanging over you, your hands are tied. Simple things like applying for a visa become a challenge because you have to state whether you have ever been convicted of any offence or have a pending case in court.

Because of the charges, I couldn’t accompany my daughter to the United Kingdom (UK) when she enrolled there. Even when she graduated two years later, I couldn’t attend the event. It is very painful that for five years, I couldn’t even get a job. I had already left the government when I first appeared in court in 2017.

I could have looked for work to do here and abroad but I couldn’t apply with the charges hanging over my head. It has been five long, wasted years. I’m glad that I’m finally free. However, I’m disappointed that I did not get my day in court to set the record straight.

LT: What does it say about the DCEO that it put you through all this only to withdraw from the case without even presenting any evidence in court against you? Some people have claimed that the DCEO is used by whichever government is in power at the time to victimise political and other opponents?

Khaketla: The DCEO has become a wing of some political parties. They’re not dealing with cases professionally. The charges against me came up in 2016 but they didn’t take me to court then because I was a minister at the time.

Perhaps at the time they considered me to be untouchable. Immediately after I left government (following the defeat of the DC in the 2017 elections and advent of the Thomas Thabane-led All Basotho Convention government), they came for me.

The DCEO has become notorious for losing cases, especially high-profile cases. They are just wasting taxpayers’ money. If I could, I would sue them, not because I need the money, but just to show that they are evil.

LT: The government has gazetted new mobile subscriber regulations, requiring people to register their SIM cards. Under the new regulations, state security agencies can only access subscribers’ information from the mobile phone operators after they have obtained a court order. But the DCEO is an exception. All that is required is for the Director General of the DCEO to write to mobile phone operators demanding that information and it will be given to them without a court order. Given your own experiences with the DCEO do you think this is proper?

Khaketla: I thought everybody would have to first obtain a court order, including the DCEO. If the police have to get a court order, why not the DCEO? It is very wrong for them to be exempted.

But then again, they easily access people’s records anyway. When they interrogated me for five solid hours, they already knew everything about my bank accounts.

LT: You’ve been cleared of the corruption charges on a technicality. You had been dying to have your day in court to set the record straight. May you kindly tell us what actually transpired leading up to the awarding of that contract?

Khaketla: The history of government car rentals goes way back. At some point we were hiring from Imperial Car Rental, then Avis and Bidvest. At the time, Avis was holding the government at ransom because some of its shareholders were members of the ABC.

They knew that their time was coming to an end and they were playing dirty tricks to continue milking government. They wanted a contract extension by default. So, I advised that we should terminate their contract. We then gave Bidvest a short-term contract. The case against me had nothing to do with the car rental scheme but it was a political ploy against me.

LT: A political ploy by who since the allegations were raised by your own DC colleagues at the time?

Khaketla: It was a political ploy by some people within the DC to take over the party. These were people led by Ntate (Monyake) Moleleki who was the DC deputy leader at the time. There were already rumours that he was on his way out and planning to form his own party, the Alliance of Democrats (AD).

LT: So, what was the ploy in aid of?  Why couldn’t Moleleki and his faction just leave the DC without rocking the boat with those allegations against you?

Khaketla: Ntate Moleleki, and some members of the DC Youth League were already planning to leave the party to form the AD and they decided to use the fleet tender to destabilise the DC.  

LT: Why would your own comrades single you out? Was it fair to single you out when it was a Cabinet decision to award the fleet contract? Why do you think you were singled out?

Khaketla: The whole thing was political. Probably the DECO was looking for ministers they considered the most vulnerable or easy targets to show that they were really working.

There was a committee of five ministers on that tender but surprisingly I was the only one charged. I asked DCEO about this and they couldn’t answer.

LT: You were a prominent DC member at the time. Are you still a party member? If so, in what capacity? 

Khaketla: Yes, I’m still in the DC but as an ordinary card-carrying member. I had my time, I had six years in the national executive committee (NEC). I decided not to run for NEC elections in January 2019 because there comes a time when one has to make way for others to lead.

LT: Are you going to contest the general elections this year?

Khaketla: I’m not going to contest. I told the then party leader (Mosisili) that if I lose elections twice I would not stand again, I would not stand a third time. I lost in 2012 and 2017. I’m not going to contest now.

LT: In your own assessment, how do you think the DC will perform this time?

Khaketla: Up until the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) came into the picture (in March this year), the DC was miles ahead of its rivals. With them (RFP) on board, it could be said that the balance is shifting but it’s difficult to say how it will pan out. That said, I foresee another coalition government with DC in it.

LT: You talked about five years of your life being wasted. Where do you start rebuilding your life now?

Khaketla: I’m now 62 and I should be retiring and enjoying my life. But I have to find a way of earning a living. I have to pay my bills. I’m going to look around and see where I’m still useful. I also grow beans and run a piggery project.

LT: How did you and your family deal with all the criticism that came your way?

Khaketla: I could handle it but my daughter would come to me disturbed and say, ‘I can see here they say this and that about you’. Then I would start explaining many things and she would say that’s why she hated politics. I had a lot of support from my family and colleagues. But I survived all the criticism because I have a very thick skin.  I vowed not to give my detractors the joy of seeing me broken.

But I spent a lot of money on legal fees. My lawyer still has to send me the final bill. I was up against a DCEO that was dipping into a bottomless bag of state coffers and it hit me hard.

They brought in a South African prosecutor for my case and he would come knowing that all he would do was ask for postponements. He was being paid from our taxes. The DCEO should be given a limit on how much to spend on particular cases.

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