Lesotho has always hosted large numbers of Chinese nationals since independence in the 60s and the number had grown almost exponentially in recent times.
This has also meant that Chinese involvement in the Lesotho economy has increased at a rapid rate. The virtually monopolistic ownership of the textile firms that export overseas is well documented.
The Chinese government has also moved in to build various architectural landmarks including the national library, the ministry of health headquarters and the magnificent edifice that is the national parliament.
There have even been rumours that there is a proposed blueprint for China-town within the capital city, Maseru. People of Chinese origin is estimated to be over 5 000 people of Chinese origin in Lesotho as of 2010.
Recently, there have been reports of conflicts between Chinese and Basotho, from robberies to gun violence in different parts of the country. In this no-holds-barred interview, theReporters’ Neo Kolane (NK) puts some hard and piercing questions to human rights lawyer Tekane Maqakachane, on Basotho-Chinese relations.
NK: What does the law say about racism in Lesotho; looking at the way Chinese treat Basotho?
TM: The starting point to answer the first part of your answer is definitely the Constitution. The Constitution recognizes and confers to “every person in Lesotho” the fundamental human right of equality and equal protection of the law.
The Constitution further prohibits any law either in itself or in its effect from discriminating one person from the other on the basis of prohibited ground. One of the prohibited grounds is “race” itself. Secondly, we have in Lesotho, the Race Relations Act 2005 which specifically prohibits discrimination based on race in specific contexts and provides for race relations education in Lesotho.
Thus, not only the law but also “conduct” is proscribed from being discriminatory on the specified grounds. So that, no law or conduct may afford differential treatment to a Mosotho which is not afforded to a Chinese national, simply because one is a Mosotho and the other is a Chinese.
The Constitution set its face against such laws or discriminatory conduct and seeks to establish equality of treatment of races. Coming to the second part of your question: although it may not be clear what treatment is being referred to here; but where the Chinese nationals treat any Mosotho or Basotho differentially to the way they treat themselves or other nationals in Lesotho, that would amount to discrimination which is proscribed by the Constitution and the Race Relations Act 2005.
NK: Basotho are constantly complaining about Chinese, what is your take on them in Lesotho?
TM: The complaint by Basotho about Chinese is based on a number of grounds that range very wide. Amongst them include the Chinese employers treatment of Basotho labour force in terms of a variety of labour related issues ranging from discrimination at workplaces itself, meager salaries, and respect of workers’ rights and Employees’ Labour Associations’ rights; the infiltration of the Chinese Nationals into the economic space that is reserved for the local businesses.
You are fully aware that Chinese nationals are operating businesses (spaza shops) even at remote areas of the Kingdom, and offer for sale products and items that it was not originally the intention for allowing them to be in Lesotho.
The Lesotho National Development Corporation has opened the economic space for the foreign nationals at the macro-level business venture, such as manufacturing, supermarkets, and definitely not on the micro-level business ventures which we now see the Chinese national engaging. Unfortunately, the successive Governments of the Kingdom have given a lee way or have turned a blind eye to this wrongful conduct. The continued disregard by both the Government of the Kingdom and the Chinese nationals of these frameworks will definitely lead to simmering tensions between Basotho and Chinese nationals.
NK: Should Basotho take kindly to children becoming orphans because their parents lose their lives at the hands of some Chinese?
TM: I will assume you are asking me whether the Chinese nationals should kill Basotho nationals thereby rendering the latter’s children fatherless or motherless! A categorical NO! Lesotho has a criminal justice system that applies to everyone, regardless of his race, origin or status. A criminal act perpetrated by anyone should be dealt by the criminal justice system.
The greatest challenge, in my view is that, most of our institutions and agencies (police, prosecution, courts, etc) have been captured by many of the Chinese nationals through corrupt activity that has recently well-nigh immunized these Chinese nationals from due process, prosecution and conviction. If it is not an issue of corruption, you find Chinese nationals, for some reason, being treated with baby-gloves. Perhaps the social scientists will proffer an objective empirical answer to this soft-spot on the part of our institutions and systems when it comes to foreign nationals, particularly the Chinese.
NK: are you aware of the extent to which Basotho are exploited by Chinese?
TM: I may not have data at my disposal, but majority of Basotho are at the mercy of the Chinese nationals. Even the Government of the Kingdom of Lesotho has not been spared the spoils. The successive Governments of the Kingdom are continuously at the receiving end of the whims and caprice of Chinese nationals, particularly those with economic muscle and power. The relevant departments of the Government (work and residents permits, passports and IDs, licensing authorities, etc) are clear candidates in the exploitation crusades by deep-pockets Chinese nationals.
NK: What is the law doing when it comes to both Chinese and Basotho deaths; which one is taken seriously and paid attention to?
TM: As I said earlier, our systems and sub-systems are hugely influenced and exploited by powerful Chinese nationals within our borders. These Chinese escape easily the police processes. Those who get caught by the Police net, easily go through the prosecution wide-holed sieves. If caught at this level, they are likely to go unpunished or with a pat on the wrist for a sentence. That is the legal side or justice system when it comes to Chinese nationals.
There is also the administrative side which is politically driven or bent to demands of powerful Chinese nationals for reasons identified above. But I should not be understood as being too general on these issues, as there are officials in our systems who live to the expectations and duties of their respective offices and discharging these duties impeccably. For reasons referred to above, provide a clear answer for the differential approach to criminal conduct perpetrated by Chinese, on the one hand, and Basotho, on the other.
NK: What could be the way forward as far as mutually respectful co-existence Basotho and Chinese is concerned?
TM: It is a difficult one. The malady is so entrenched in our national institutions and systems. It has not become the culture in our Kingdom. Reforming the systems may be a starting point but definitely not the answer. The real answer lies with reforming the men and women who are behind and within these institutions and system; the character and resolve of these people can take us out of the quark mire and quandary.
We need men and women who commit themselves to protecting the soul of this Kingdom; men and women who are true to the duty as a needle to the pole; men and women who cannot be bought or sold, and will do what is right though the heavens fall. Without reforming the individuals, the reform of systems will bring us back to where we started: a vicious circle.
NK: Four men on August 5 appeared in court for stabbing a Chinese businessman. Earlier, a Mosotho man died at Sekamaneng after being shot by his Chinese employer, but it is still not clear how far the case is unfolding.
TM: Generally, it would be expected that the normal processes should follow. That is being detained in custody unless they are given bail, in which case, they will be released and await for the trial in due course.
NK: There are persisting rumours that the influx of (sometimes undocumented) Chinese nationals, some with shady backgrounds, into Lesotho is unregulated. What is your take on that?
TM: I do not see any problem with any foreign nationals, including Chinese, coming to our shores. The challenges are internal to our Kingdom and that is where the problem must be resolved. The legal framework applicable to our Kingdom must be implemented in the manner to achieve the objectives thereof. Otherwise, where a foreign national who does not present a legal, economic or political challenge to Lesotho, must be allowed to visit this great nation of Moshoeshoe I.
NK: On September 4, a Chinese businessmen were robbed along the Mpilo Road, and the response from some sections of society raised eyebrows; some people were unsympathetic. Is that an unacceptable reaction?
TM: I do not subscribe to a view that champion violence to address violence. I am not a candidate of breaking the law in order to uphold the law. We need to identify the problem and address that specific problem. It cannot be right that because Basotho national have good reason to be angry with Chinese nationals, then when a robbery, which is a criminal offence in our books, is done on the Chinese national, it should then be condoned on that score. It is absolutely gibberish, regardless who is involved.
NK: Would you say Basotho are robbed of their dignity, in favour of the Chinese?
TM: Basotho, versus the Chinese, have been rendered second class citizens in their own country. And this is a sad reality which the Government is not till now prepared to resolve.