By Adv M S Rasekoai
Finance Minister Timothy Thahane’s budget speech before parliament a few weeks back can at face value be best characterised as nothing but a routine symbolic theoretical odyssey that fails to have any practical relevance to the Basotho taxpayers.
Thahane has admitted serious socio-economic problems in Lesotho’s society.
This is in the wake of evident challenges such as inefficient and inadequate tertiary institutions, unaffordable healthcare facilities, the decay of the unplanned capital city which overflows during heavy rains, worsening teacher quality and the rising scourge of unemployment among university graduates.
We are also grappling with the decay of institutions which are meant to facilitate the administration of justice.
It is not the purpose of this article to single out the failures of the government but to make a case for an even bigger government priority and the impact of the said challenges on ordinary Basotho.
It is perhaps important to highlight the new phantom of bureaucratic greed which to a large extent vitiates the assimilation of socio-economic rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Lesotho 1993.
There is a new trend in the civil service, an enduring bureaucracy and their cronies who have the power to keep and to increase their share in the Basotho taxpayers’ money.
The civil service system protects public servants from being fired, not only for incompetence, but also for vagaries in the business cycle.
A majority of the labour force in the private sector must get by with temporary work, seasonal jobs or marginal self-employment while public servants have comfortable retirement benefits, regular promotions, housing at low rentals, and the assurance that their incomes will hold steady or increase, although they may be unproductive, sick, or holding a sinecure.
Many government employees who have close ties with the ruling party arrange a public service job for a spouse or a relative.
They also use their power to get their relatives employment in the private sector.
High ranking public servants, with knowledge of purchasing procedures or complex rules they themselves may have written, team up with privately owned firms to get government jobs in what is coined as “tenderprenuership”.
Distributive injustice is fast manifesting itself in Lesotho with high ranking civil servants having both sides of their bread buttered at the expense of ordinary Basotho taxpayers.
Big South African companies which trade in Lesotho and the public servants that run the government bureaucracy are comrades under the skin.
At various levels, there is a revolving door through which corporate and public executives switch jobs and share wealth and power.
Upon careful observation one may notice that such companies recruit law and accounting graduates who work for a few years as regulators in government institutions before leaving for jobs advising corporations on how to get what they want without breaking the rules.
Government officials are unlikely to crack down on the excess of hired corporate managers when they themselves hope someday to be on the other side.
A high-level public servant can hope to become a multi-millionaire as an executive in a large foreign owned company, using the influence and expertise he acquired while in the government.
Most of the foreign-owned companies lobby to avert the gaze of state regulator from their unseemly behaviour and later give jobs to those who do so.
We all have to keep a watchful eye over the government bureaucrats because the current trend on their part is that they focus on “their means of sustenance”.
The motivation that can be best placed on their walls in their exclusively furnished government offices is “what have you got to offer me”? Not “what have you got to offer the country”?
While railing against big business for public consumption, the government bureaucrats are happy to use companies as tax collectors, automatically taking tribute from the pay cheques (some warranted and illegal) and grocery bills.
In return, companies pay a shrinking share of income tax.
Effective corporate income taxes have been falling steadily since the rise of the phenomenon took its cause. Walt Kelley stated: “When you starve to death with a tiger, the tiger starves last.”
Today, the government bureaucrat is the tiger.
They garner a sizeable chunk of all the fringe benefits, free airtime, vehicles of which the fuel is paid for by taxpayers, housing at ridiculous rentals and some of them even “win” scholarships for their children from grants from developed countries aimed at “assisting children from poor countries”.
It is common knowledge that high ranking public servants attend strings of banquets and feasts at luxury resorts, masked as seminars, educational programmes, symposiums, conferences, workshops, and meetings.
Recently, the government spent a whopping M200 000 on an elitist banquet held in an exclusive hotel in the country at the opening of the High Court of Lesotho session.
This was in spite of the fact that barely a few months earlier judgments could not be written as a result of the unavailability of stationery.
Our courts were even in more trouble with litigants being turned away because there was neither paper nor pens to facilitate the litigation.
The government is more willing to impose discomfort on the public than on its own privileged class.
The modern trend in Lesotho’s ruling elite shows that the government is run by a powerful, entrenched privileged class as secure in their status as European nobility in the 18th century.
They have overwhelming wealth and a capacity to influence state policy inclusive of immunities and privileges which are kept intact even when they leave office.
Members of the legislative branch are no longer the part-time, short-term officials of early days who were inspired by patriotism and nationhood.
They are eager to get home to make a living for “themselves and their own children”.
The policies they formulate are inspired by the same ends.
We cannot forget the recent law that endorsed an MP’s access to a gratuity prior to the close of the five-year term.
Also we cannot forget the vehicle scheme that sparked controversy in the country.
What more can be said about the recently proposed bill that seek to reward the spouses of the Prime Minister and his deputy?
This perhaps explains the reason why posts in the public service have been frozen.
Increasing direct taxation is just one way government imposes a financial load on Basotho households.
Most Basotho are complaining about the high income tax while the ruling elite enjoy the benefits of tax-free salaries.
We are still lagging behind in Lesotho owing to the fact that we have consistently failed to identify the real causes of our economic challenges.
Adv M S Rasekoai is the vice-president of the Law Society of Lesotho