‘MPs loans criteria needs review’

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Political Analyst Montoeli Masoetsa

IN November 2015, the then seven-party government led by Pakalitha Mosisili paid M32 million to a local financial institution which 118 members of the Eighth Parliament owed when their term of office prematurely ended following the 28 February 2015 snap elections.

The legislators qualified for M500 000 interest-free loans as part of their benefits, and were supposed to repay the money over five years. The government underwrote the loans and also paid interest on their behalf.

However, some “Concerned Basotho” argued that the loans amounted to “political corruption and an abuse of state resources for private gain” and called on the government to recover the money.

Last week, the Prime Minister Thomas Thabane-led government paid off the M43 million owed to Nedbank Lesotho by members of the Eighth Parliament in light of the snap 3 June 2017 polls.

In this wide-ranging interview, African National Congress activist and political analyst Montoeli Masoetsa talks to Lesotho Times (LT) Reporter Pascalinah Kabi on the MPs’ loans saga.

LT: What is your take on the outcry over the government’s decision to settle M43 million debt owed by legislators from the Ninth Parliament?

Masoetsa: I do not see any problem with the government’s decision to settle this loan because you will remember that former premier Pakalitha Mosisili used the issue to threaten legislators who supported the no-confidence motion against his government. He had said the legislators would be left out in the cold with that debt.

So now that he is no longer in government, we should also remember that the current government – which spearheaded the no-confidence motion – pushed for the vote well aware of the risks parliamentarians who supported them took. They knew very well that some of the parliamentarians would not retain their constituency seats and risked being unable to settle the loans.

When these parliamentarians supported the motion, they made a conscious decision to save Lesotho and Basotho from atrocities like kidnappings and torture on certain members of the society. They also saved this country economically since the European Union (EU) withdrew its budget support from the government of Lesotho. The political situation at the time, and the intransigence of that government, had made donors and investors to withhold their monies.

At that time, the economic situation in Lesotho was dire due to the political instability. Therefore, the current administration was obliged to address the issue of the legislators who took a risk to liberate this country. You will have to understand that of the M500 000 interest-free loans taken by the Ninth parliament, each of them had already paid M270 000 and therefore government had to settle the remaining balance. If you compare the amount that has been paid by the government for MPs’ loans with the money spent on Bidvest per month, settling the MPs’ loans is better economically.

Coming to the public outcry, I think we need to look into this matter with two different lenses. I strongly believe that the law has to be amended and ensure that not everyone’s loan is settled.

For example, suppose I was a member of the Ninth Parliament and borrowed the M500 000. In the event that I retained my parliamentary position, why should I not continue to service the debt since I have the means to do so?

Cancelling or paying off the entire debt and allowing me to take another free interest loan creates wrong perceptions among the people. Allowing this to continue will make people ask what the difference is between the past regime and this one.

Legislators who retained their seats should continue to service their loans and not be allowed to borrow money anew. Only new faces in parliament should be allowed to enjoy this benefit while the old ones continue to pay for their loans until they have settled them.

The law has to change on that aspect and the government should embark on a public sensitisation programme to ensure that both politicians and the electorate are on the same page.

LT: There is no evidence put forward that these MPs, both in the 8th and 9th parliaments, were failing to service their debts, owing to the fact that some of them retained their parliamentary seats after both 2015 and 2017 snap elections. Wouldn’t you say this is institutionalised corruption?

Masoetsa: Actually, when these people were given the opportunity to take the M500 000 interest-free loans, the government never looked into each individual’s economic status. The only prerequisite was being a member of parliament and senator. The purpose of these loans was not for people to buy brand new cars and lead these luxurious lifestyles.

The introduction of these loans came from a good place. We know that most MPs were elected based on their good standing in society and their conduct with the people. In most cases, they are just ordinary citizens. So these loans were meant to uplift the standards of living of MPs.

It is contrary to the popular belief from the electorate that the MPs should use that money on them. The monies are not meant for developmental projects for the electorate, but to improve the legislators’ lives.

If one is called an honourable MP, their house should show that they are now a public representative. The work of developing and financing projects in different constituency entirely sits on the Ministry of Development Planning, Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), Basotho Enterprise Development Corporation (BEDCO) and others, not the MPs.

The MPs’ primary duties are to enact laws and attend to public concerns in their constituency. People should understand this. It should, therefore, be an entrenched educational programme by political parties to make people understand that voting for an individual is like hiring an employee with a basic monthly salary and other benefits which comes with that position.

We cannot expect the MPs to shoulder each individual’s problems simply because we have voted for them. These loans are meant to uplift their lives and nothing else.

LT: How does this apply to those MPs who have been reelected since 2012? Do they not defy the purpose for which the facility was introduced?

Masoetsa: Like I said earlier, when this benefit was introduced, the government never looked into the individual’s economic status because some of these people went to parliament already well off. Some of the people were former principal secretaries who were earning more than parliamentarians, while others were business people. Because a selection criteria was never put in place, everyone feels they have a right to borrow the money simply because they are members of parliament.

We seriously need to look into the criteria for this benefit, because legislators who are well to do should go to banks as individuals and borrow money like any other Mosotho who does not have the government has their guarantor.

This service is only meant to uplift legislators for whom parliament is practically their first formal employment.

It was never meant to enrich people.

LT:  Lesotho is crippled by a high disease burden, youth unemployment rate and poverty. What would you say needs to be done to ensure the already limited resources are channeled into development programmes instead of spending M43 million on a few individuals?

Masoetsa: Even if we were to deny these people this money, it can never address the economic problems of this country taking into account trends in the labour market. If you look into the new entrants into the labour market on a yearly basis, we have thousands of graduates – either from Lesotho or South Africa – yet we cannot absorb them into the labour market due to what this country’s politicians failed to do a long time ago.

In 2002, South Africa offered Lesotho an opportunity to grow economically, saying it wanted to ensure that the country transitioned from the least developed country status. Unfortunately, our politicians were arrogant and only wanted something which would benefit them directly as individuals.

This would have helped the country ensure that its money circulated within, and not eroded into South Africa daily. Government sponsors students both studying in the country and in South Africa and the SA university fees are skyrocketing. South Africa saw that coming and wanted to help Lesotho develop. Under the Joint Bilateral Corporation (JBCC), South Africa was going to finance Lesotho’s national budget for five years to ensure that it was economically stable, but that was met with arrogance.

Therefore, such a framework should be reconsidered. Right now, we are faced with serious problems that this current government should look into and not follow the footsteps of their predecessors.

For instance, in 2008 a court of appeal foreign judge spotted a problem with our constitution on issues of dual citizenship. He clearly stated that Basotho were facing problems in South Africa due to this matter, and directed the attorney-general to advise government to repeal that. Since 2008, we have never moved an inch towards addressing that problem; an indication that our political leadership does not see things in a broader light.

Until such a time when this country’s political leadership is ready to work for the people, not for individual gains, our economic status will remain like this and the M500 000 will not be used to address these issues. Our leaders should swallow their pride, go to South Africa and negotiate for three exemptions for Basotho – free study permits, work permits and medical permits. Basotho’s basic needs in South Africa are education, health and employment.

So my take is that these loans were never going to uplift Lesotho’s economic situation and all its challenges.

LT: Can a M43 million once-off payment set the country back, compared to the M60 m per month of the Bidvest deal?

Masoetsa: Let us look at the previous fleet management contract government had, which was replaced by Bidvest. Avis was paid M34m and when the past regime took over, they doubled the amount by engaging Bidvest because some of the ministers were personally benefitting from such an arrangement. That arrangement crippled this country to an extend that towards the end of their regime, they would take money from each ministry to pay Bidvest. They enjoyed seeing ministries unable to discharge their duties because they benefitted from that contract.

Now that the government signed out of that Bidvest contract, I can safely say it is better that way because money will circulate in Lesotho and uplift the lives of the people. However, at the same time we need to interrogate if this contract was not entered into corruptly.

LT: Do you think this loan facility has any implications for the quality of Lesotho’s democracy?

Masoetsa: The first argument one would raise is ‘do these people do their jobs efficiently’ as they are supposed to because you cannot guarantee a M500 000 interest-free loan to someone who spends the entire month sleeping on the job. Some spend the entire session seconding every single motion and their impact is never felt.

How does one spend the entire quarter of the parliament sitting seconding every single motion raised? Does it mean their constituencies do not have problems and challenges?

If this government wants to address the dependency of the public to the MP, they should accelerate the process of decentralising local government. Services should be delivered by the local government structures because, when given money to deliver services, districts will perform better in job creation and service delivery. They will make sure that money is not spent extravagantly and strive for quality work. Decentralisation will also minimise internal migration and create sustainable labour intensity.

LT: How does the South African government handle benefits for legislators?

Masoetsa: Their salaries are way better than that of Lesotho legislators. An ordinary MP, on a provincial level, earns M80 000 per month while the one in Cape Town Parliament nets M100 000 or more over, their local government is fully functional and has its budget. You should also understand that in South Africa, the private sector is very independent and tells the government straight away when it is on the wrong. That is not the case in Lesotho. Lesotho needs to graduate to the level where something is not bad merely because it has been done by Pakalitha Mosisili but glorified when Thomas Thabane does it. In terms of South African legal framework, its opposition is very strong and uses the legal framework to fight back whereas ANC has now become arrogant and will fall the same way the once mighty Lesotho Congress for Democracy fell.

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