Students’ money vanishes

BLOEMFONTEIN — Hundreds of Basotho students studying in South Africa are stranded after millions of Maloti meant for their rentals mysteriously vanished.
The money — provided by the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) — could exceed M10 million.
The exact amount could not be established.
The government has accused a middleman, Bothatha Matlala, of failing to forward the money to estate agents running apartments accommodating Basotho students.
Matlala acts as a middleman between Basotho students and estate agents providing them accommodation at universities in Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.
Over 300 Basotho students studying at the Central University of Technology (CUT) in Bloemfontein are facing eviction because they owe millions in rentals.
For the past six months they have also suffered power and water disconnections because of non-payment.
According to the students at CUT, Matlala allegedly told them he could not pay their rentals because he had not received the money from the government.
But the NMDS this week said Matlala had been paid the full amount in advance under a dubious arrangement.
The arrangement is that the NMDS gives the rental money to Matlala who first deducts his commission before forwarding it to estate agents running the student residences.
When the NMDS paid him for this year’s rentals, Matlala is suspected of having kept all the money to himself instead of taking just his commission before forwarding the rest to the estate agents.
Omni Estates, an agency which runs Four Rivers — a student compound just outside the CUT campus in Bloemfontein — this week decided to all but impound property belonging to Basotho students over the non-payment of rent.
The apartments are owned by the Free State Development Corporation.
When the students returned from their classes on Tuesday, they found a notice from Omni barring them from taking their property out of the residences until the outstanding rentals were settled.
“Hereby we would like to confirm that no Four Rivers students are allowed to vacate the premises of village square until the problem between Four Rivers agent (Matlala) and Omni Estates agency are solved,” said the statement.
The students said although they could go in and out of their flats, they were not allowed to take out any of their electrical appliances like fridges, stoves, televisions and computers.
If Matlala does not pay up Omni might have to take the students’ property and
sell it to recover the unpaid rentals.
Most of the students are currently writing examinations.
The Ministry of Finance – under which the NMDS falls — is aware of the developments in Bloemfontein and has since hinted at taking legal action against Matlala.
The ministry’s acting principal secretary, Liengoane Lefosa, told the Lesotho Times that she had a meeting with Matlala on Tuesday.
Lefosa said in that meeting Matlala admitted that he was paid in full by the NMDS and that he had not forwarded the money to Omni Estates.
“It was in that meeting that we were able to establish that he (Matlala) has not been paying the South African estate agents managing the student villages even though he had been paid in full by the government,” Lefosa said.
She said Matlala had failed to give a reason why he had not paid the rentals.
Lefosa said Matlala promised to deposit the money into the estate agents’ accounts yesterday.
Yet when the ministry checked with the agencies, Matlala still had not made any deposit, Lefosa said.
“However, when I spoke to Marienatta (one of the officials at Omni) just now (10am) she said no deposit had been made into their account,” she said.
“We had made an agreement with Mr Matlala that he would bring me the deposit slips as soon as he had made the transactions.
“But I have not heard from him since the meeting.”
She said the ministry was dealing with the crisis.
“We have to work on this issue, deal with it thoroughly so that it does not repeat itself again,” she said.
“Legal action against Mr Matlala is on the cards,” she said.
But there is also another twist to the matter.
It has since emerged that that the NMDS allegedly overpaid Matlala and the government is now demanding that he pays back the money.
Officials at the Ministry of Finance claimed the money “overpaid” to Matlala runs into millions.
When the Lesotho Times visited the Four Rivers village in Bloemfontein on Monday night there was no electricity.
The Lesotho Student Association (Lesa), which represents Basotho students at CUT, said a few days earlier they had gone for some time without water.
“Exams are in progress as we speak,” said a Lesa committee member who requested anonymity for fear of victimisation.
“However, we do not have water and electricity. We have not bathed for days.
“Neither have we been able to study for exams at our residences due to power cuts.
“On top of it all, we are being threatened with eviction from the student villages.
“Life here resembles a horror movie.
“There is never a time when we have water and electricity supply at the same time.”
The student said when they confronted the service providers on different occasions about the cause of the recurrent power and water cuts they were informed that it was happening because they owed rent.
“We were told that it was because we owed rent and that the NMDS had not paid,” he said.
“When we asked about the terms of their agreement with Manpower, they failed to give us a clear answer.”
The problems have been going on for the past six months, the students said.
During that time they have been given different explanations.
They said when they confronted Matlala he told them that the NMDS had not paid him.
And they confronted the NMDS the bursaries department in turn claimed it had paid Matlala for the whole year.
Eventually on September 30 the students’ representatives met with NMDS director Letholetseng Ntsike at her Maseru office to thrash out the issues.
But the students said Ntsike failed to give them clear answers about the NMDS’s agreement with Matlala.
“We wanted to hear from her what the NDMS agreement with the service providers and Matlala entailed,” another Lesa committee member said.
“She failed to provide us with a clear answer, adding that she wouldn’t know as she was new there.
“We clearly explained to her that when we left Bloemfontein for Lesotho, our electricity supplies had been cut already.
“She seemed surprised, saying that to her knowledge the service providers had been paid.
“We informed her that service providers were adamant they had not been paid but she insisted that the NMDS had kept its side of the bargain.”
In the meantime the students have been living in fear of being evicted.
Threatening letters have been written to them.
This paper is in possession of a letter from the Free State Development Corporation dated October 16 threatening to evict the students over the outstanding rentals.
On Tuesday, Lesa representatives informed this paper that students who had finished writing their exams were being barred by security guards from vacating the Four River premises over the outstanding rentals.
The guards, according to the students, were acting on orders from Omni Estates.
“Parents coming to collect their children were turned back by the security at the gates,” said one student.
“The security said they had been instructed not to allow students to vacate the premises with anything except their blankets and clothes.
“All electrical appliances are not allowed to leave the compound.”
Omni Estates managing director, whose name was only given as Ashley, declined to speak to this paper.
However, Omni Estates eventually wrote the students a formal letter explaining its decision.
When contacted for comment Ntsike was adamant that this time the problem was not with the NMDS but Matlala.
“We are currently in talks with the students,” Ntsike said.
“The landlord has been paid for the whole year by the National Manpower.
“Our accounts have verified that he has been paid.
“We do not owe the landlord even a cent.
“If anything, Mr Bothata Matlala owes the government excess money that he was paid.”
She said she was not clear about the terms of agreement between the NMDS and Matlala.
“There are no terms of the agreement I can refer to,” Ntsike said.
“All agreements made appear to be verbal.
“He gave the impression that the residences were his, only for us to find out at a later stage that they belong to estate agencies. Matlala could not be reached for comment as his mobile phone number was constantly unavailable.

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