No land for development in Lesotho

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‘Mako Bohloa

I WROTE this opinion piece in response to an article I read in the Lesotho Times of 29 June 2017 “Govt to revive Job Summit process”.

The article was about plans Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro to revive the jobs summit.

I thought I should take this opportunity to share with Lesotho Times readers about why it’s so difficult to create jobs in Lesotho. In-fact, it’s often close to impossible to create jobs in the Mountain Kingdom.

I always find it astonishing to realise the level of under-development our country suffers from yet it’s located right in the middle of a world-class economy.

What I also find most disturbing is the amount of land and property that the government of Lesotho holds and is not prepared to develop or re-develop. In my experience of trying to develop properties in Lesotho, I think there are seven key areas of concern, which impede economic growth and need to be addressed urgently.

On my recent visit to Sandton, South Africa, I saw a wave of high-level construction activity. There are new world-class buildings mushrooming all over Sandton. In some instances, solid structures that are still in a good condition are being demolished to make way for new buildings. It was as if one was watching a Sci-fi movie. The energy in Sandton is so positive and alive.

I asked one of the developers what triggered the sudden boom in construction of A-grade buildings in Sandton, and why demolish buildings that are still in a good condition. The answer was very simple, “in order to get the economy moving”.

If properties such as the Lesotho Bank Tower or Victoria Hotel were located in Sandton, they would have been demolished to make way for new blue-chip properties that are energy efficient. Sandton is all about optimisation of space in the CBD. Each square metre has to generate jobs.

From Sandton, I made a stop in Hatfield, Pretoria. The last time I had been in Hatfield was about two and a half years ago but I got a surprise of my life because things were very different this time around.

For the benefit of readers that are not familiar with Hatfield, it is a small town on the periphery of the Pretoria CBD, predominantly owned by the University of Pretoria. Hatfield is also a home to embassies from Africa and around the world. The university has invested heavily in shopping malls, student flats and office blocks.

What impressed me the most was the development of new high-rise buildings, hotels, student flats and the Gautrain station around the vicinity of the univwersity. It’s impressive to see synergies between the private sector and an institution of higher learning. One also sees a vision of the university to constantly developing Pretoria as a capital city.

So, coming back home, things were very different. Mostly dull and negative. Most of the land is still owned by the government or its agencies such as Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) and Maseru City Council (MCC). Government as a policy maker of economic development and job creation is doing quite the opposite of what it is meant to do.

 

Problem 1: Hoarding of land and properties

The government is very tight fisted when it comes to land and not prepared to develop properties that can create thousands of jobs for the youths. I am not sure if the main problem occurs at a policy level or with the implementing agencies but the government is allowing land to go to waste at the expense of job creation.

Please allow me to make an example. Have you seen houses that occupy prime land in Maseru urban areas such as Maseru West, Mohalalitoe, High-court area, Katlehong and so on.

Most of those houses are in a shocking state of disrepair. I always ask myself the reason why our government finds it difficult to sell those assets to the private sector, so as those plots can be re-developed into value added assets that can create jobs. I am told, whether true or not, that some government houses are still rented for about M200 per month.

One also wonders why prime sites such as the Senate offices, located along Kingsway, The Ministry of Agriculture office, located along Constitution road and Lancers-Inn are still not re-developed almost a hundred years later. Those properties are in a derelict state but government is still not prepared to let go and let the private sector step in. Secondly, those sites have locked great potential of generating high paying and high value jobs for Lesotho’s youths.

I have also realised that property such as the Post Office building and Moposo house suffer neglect due to lack of maintenance. Government must leave the business of business to the private sector. Government should only be concerned about the business of governance and tax collection.

 

Problem 2. Hoarding of national assets by the LNDC

Is it ethical for national assets such as Basotho Canners, to be closed and stay idle yet thousands of young people and children go to bed on empty stomachs?

A second point that I have noticed as an impediment to economic growth is of hoarding of national assets by the LNDC. What is government still doing in the business of business? Why is government through its agency, LNDC, still a shareholder in the LNDC Centre and factory shells?

I understand that the government of Lesotho has given LNDC a clear mandate to set up companies and properties such as the Brewery and properties such as the LNDC Centre.

The mandate further instructs the LNDC to sell those assets to the private sector in order to stimulate economic growth. The LNDC is now going for 40 years of existence and still retains the bulk of the assets. Will we get an answer as to when the LNDC will offload national assets such as;

  1. Basotho Canners
  2. Cash Build shares
  3. Shoprite shares
  4. Avani Maseru/Lesotho shares
  5. LNDC Centre Property
  6. Maluti Mountain Brewery
  7. Loti Brick
  8. Lesotho Milling shares
  9. Defcort flats
  10. Factory shells

Will the parliament of Lesotho look into this matter urgently?

 

Problem 3: Lack of capacity within MCC

Municipalities are very important engines of economic growth as they set a tone for all stakeholders, be it government or the private sector. When a municipality is charged with a vision to develop a city, all stakeholders have to follow suit. But if a municipality of a capital city is reactive and always putting out fires, the entire country will be disorganised and lacks direction.

The third point is a hot and sensitive topic of capacity building within the MCC. I had a very interesting discussion with an architect who was struggling to get a building permit from the MCC. He told me in frustration that, “you know what? I wish MCC could understand that a building permit equals jobs but to get a permit approved is always a very lengthy and frustrating process.”

I do a lot of business with the MCC and wish to point out that this opinion piece is not meant to discredit the MCC as an institution but only meant to strengthen it.

I believe that a solution is to capacitate MCC into becoming a fully functional, world-class municipality. It has to be capacitated with highly experienced staff members such as city managers, city engineers and town planners. The government should also be prepared to pay high salaries in order to get the best talent from all over the world.

Unless the city council transforms to be given autonomy and enough resources to operate, Maseru city will lack economic growth.

 

Problem 4: A dysfunctional local government system

I have always argued that urban centres such as Mafeteng, Maputsoe, Butha-Buthe and Mazenod (because of the airport) should have long had fully fledged and self-sustaining municipalities. That move could have created a system of local economies to avoid an influx of people seeking employment in Maseru city.

However, the current mess one finds at local councils leaves much to be desired. Most local councils if not all are staffed with people who are completely clueless about what they are supposed to do. There are also no town master-plans, no resources to implement work, no management to offer guidance. It’s a complete mess.

Most local councils have not allocated land for development and agriculture. As a result, there is a sporadic construction of housing and shacks on fertile agricultural land and within the road reserve. There is no land allocated to factories, schools and services (water and electricity).

A solution is to convert some of the local councils into autonomous municipalities but emphasis must be placed on getting qualified visionaries to be city managers.

 

Problem 5: Hoarding of prime land by churches

Is it ethical for churches to own land and properties worth billions of maloti yet children and young people live in constant desperation, anxiety and poverty?

This topic conflicts with what Jesus Christ stood and fought for. From what I have learnt, Jesus Christ was a freedom fighter because he fought for the rights of the youths, the poor, the sick and the marginalised. Jesus Christ was an advocate of justice for the poor.

Our churches in Lesotho are doing the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ stood for. A valuation of lands and properties owned by Lesotho churches would run into billions of maloti. Unfortunately, very few people are aware of that fact.

Most churches own acres of prime land and properties that remain idle and undeveloped with the exception of the LEC/KEL Church. From my experience, the KEL Church is the most organised religious institution that has an office dedicated to property development and management. There is also an effort here and there from the Anglican Church of Lesotho.

Churches hoard fertile land that has potential to feed thousands of hungry kids countrywide. Churches also lock land that has potential to educate hundreds of thousands of young people from the entire continent. Churches also hoard prime land that has a potential to be developed into prime properties that can employ thousands of unemployed young people.

What I really find sad is that, Churches spearheaded development in Lesotho.  Churches were responsible for building schools, hospitals, universities and even created jobs and that was what Jesus stood for. A better life for all.

It’s also unfortunate to realise that in modern times, our churches are just okay with not developing the country. They are also okay with not feeding and educating the poor. All they are after is the Sunday offering and life can go on as normal.

Our churches need to remember that they are equally responsible for developing Lesotho in order to create jobs. Our churches also need to remember that it is their responsibility to educate young minds and to provide for their well-being.

I believe that it is very unethical for institutions that represent Christ to deny citizens a means to a better life.  It is also sinful for Lesotho’s youths to live in constant desperation and anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, yet institutions that are meant to provide hope and life are worth billions.

If churches are not prepared to develop Lesotho as they have done in the past, then they should be prepared to pay tax like all other institutions. I am sure that the Lesotho Revenue Authority would be happy to collect a few extra millions annually.

 

Problem 6: Lack of a city-based university

I have taken great interest in city universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand, University of South Africa, University of the Free State and the University of Pretoria. All those universities are located in the central business districts and act as engines of growth to the economy.

Industry feeds from research and know-how of universities and in return, universities get funding and resources from the industry. Students also acquire first-hand experience on how industries operate. It actually works like magic.

I believe, that it was a big mistake that Lesotho never thought of investing in a university located in Maseru’s central business district. It is proven beyond reasonable doubt that the current location of the National University of Lesotho is not of benefit to the government or the private sector because it’s just too far. It is also not beneficial to students for them to get practical knowledge from the industry.

Lesotho needs to make a bold move and invest in a world-class university even if it means unlocking the land occupied by the prison, PTC and Ratjomose Barracks.

Basotho citizens need to do what Batswana citizens did about 50 years ago when they had to build a university from scratch. Each Motswana citizen had to contribute a cow and the campaign was named, “One man, one cow”. Since, wealth of Basotho lies in 4+1 taxis, each Mosotho can contribute a 4+1, and name the campaign, “one man, one 4+1”.

 

Problem 7: Land and properties in wrong hands

King Moshoeshoe I fought for Basotho to own land that they are able to live in peace and prosperity for generations to come. It is sad to realise that what King Moshoeshoe I fought hard for has been reduced to nothing.

I am not against Asians doing business in Lesotho but I am against Basotho being denied an opportunity to develop what is rightfully theirs. Basotho citizens deserve first priority and have every right to own any piece of land in their country.

In modern times, one sees Asian communities that really don’t care about the wellbeing of Basotho yet they own prime land in major urban areas of Lesotho. One sees sub-standard, low-grade properties that really leave much to be desired. One sees properties that lack basic services such as public toilets. Like really? Seriously? Is that how low we have become as a society?

I am not being xenophobic and will try to be sensitive on this topic but how do Asians end up owning prime land in Lesotho? Are Basotho that cheap?

Another important point on land and properties that are in the wrong hands is of money flowing to the wrong hands. Wrong hands can be loosely interpreted as irresponsible citizens.

I have witnessed a tragedy of sorts whereby money “chooses” to go to irresponsible people in Lesotho. Yes, it can be Basotho nationals, born and bred in Lesotho. Those are the kind of people who are not prepared to develop the country at all yet they own prime properties and land. The biggest tragedy of all, are individuals that inherit property and land and end up in bitter family battles at the expense of development.

 

In Conclusion

Development begins with having political will and that’s a will to get things done.

It will be very difficult for the 4 x 4 government to generate jobs unless most of the above mentioned points are addressed. A lack of jobs has very devastation effects on social issues, which end up becoming a burden on the state and tax-payers.

Secondly, the 4 x 4 government needs to take business very seriously if it expects the tax revenue to increase. A national tax collection of less than M6 billion in 2017 is nothing but a joke. It means business is either playing silly games or non-existent.

Government needs to create proper land-use policies that are pro-development for the sake of jobs. It is impossible to get economic growth if the government continues to lock prime land that can be converted for commercial use.

Land is an important subject that cannot be ignored. I would advise the government to have a land summit before jumping straight into a jobs summit. I would also like to advice the parliament to have robust parliamentary sub-committees.

Government agencies need to be called before parliament to answer pertinent questions about their role in destroying Lesotho’s economy. Those parliamentary sessions should be televised live so that all unemployed youths and old people know the reason why they are poor.

Honourable Machesetsa and Honourable Litjobo, kindly follow-up on these issues urgently!

It can’t be business as usual!

 

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