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The Chinese: loved, loathed in equal measure



Senate Sekotlo

MASERU“He na a ea re sotla Machaena ana, A ea re sotla Machaena, A ka lifemeng”, so runs the lyrics of a popular famo song by Abiel Hatlane.

The song, which says the Chinese are maltreating us, vividly captures the feelings of many Basotho textile workers who accuse their bosses, many of whom are of Chinese origin, of ill-treating them.

With their strong work ethic and no-nonsense attitude, the Chinese factory bosses have often found themselves on a collision course with the locals.

While ordinary Basotho would dance to the tune without giving much attention to the lyrics, the song has however a profound meaning to factory workers who toil in Lesotho’s sweat shops.

Hatlane’s famo song is a vivid illustration of the toxic relations between Basotho textile workers and their Chinese masters.

Take for instance the story of Mphotleng Molateng who used to work in the Maseru West industrial site.

Molateng worked as a supervisor but was fired in 2014.

She says her job required her to work while standing or walk between the sewing lines to supervise the workers and when she fell pregnant she could no longer stand for a long time.

That led to numerous clashes with her Chinese bosses.

“They would tell me that the factory was not for the pregnant, the ill or the dying but the able-bodied ones,” Molateng says.

She reported this to a shop steward who tried to intervene but he too was fired. Even when he won his case at the Directorate of Dispute Prevention and Resolution (DDPR), he was never reinstated.

“Our trade union, the Factory Workers Union (FAWU), only managed to fight for his terminal benefits and he left his job despite that he was not willing to leave,” she says.

Molateng says she too approached the DDPR for a redress of her problem, through the help of FAWU, and won the case but her employer fired her and refused to reinstate her.

“The trade union worked hard, doing all it could to finally have the Chinese pay me all my monies,” she says.

“All I got was M5 000, which could not last me for the next six months.”

Today, Molateng sells second-hand clothes in Maseru, Maputsoe and Butha-Buthe with her memories of her ordeal at the hands of the Chinese still etched on her psyche.

There have been many other similar stories from across nearly all textile firms, even from those that are not owned by the Chinese.

But it would appear their wrath is mainly directed at those they call “the Chinese” even though they may be naturalised Basotho or Taiwanese.

It is not only textile workers who complain about the Chinese. Local Basotho businessmen have also bitterly complained about the Chinese.

The anger and bitterness can often be gauged during radio phone-in programmes with Basotho often accusing the Chinese of seizing business opportunities in the retail sector.

They often accuse the Chinese of competing unfairly against Basotho in small grocery shops or fast-food restaurants which are by law reserved for the locals.

Trade Minister Joshua Setipa has in the past defended the Chinese arguing some of the so-called Chinese traders are actually Basotho because they were born and raised in Lesotho while other are Basotho through naturalisation process.

While there is a lot of hostility against the Chinese, there is a brighter side that is often ignored by Basotho.

The textile sector which is dominated by the Chinese-owned firms, has created over 35 000 jobs for Basotho.

The textile sector is the second biggest employer after the civil service.

At the official government-to-government level, Lesotho enjoys very warm relations with Beijing. Lesotho benefits from its bilateral relationship with China.

For instance, in April 2013, the Chinese Embassy’s Economic and Commercial Counselor, Liu Huabo, told a Sino-Lesotho Business Forum that since the resumption of diplomatic relations in 1994, China and Lesotho had enjoyed friendly and mutually beneficial economic cooperation in many fields.

Liu said the trade volume reached nearly US$100 million (about M1.3 billion) in 2012, according to Chinese official statistics – more than 86 times that in 1996 when there was only US$1.16 million.

In 2012 exports from Lesotho to China reached US$5.40 million (approximately M74.52 million), mainly wool and mohair products and some electrical products.

Liu said exports from China to Lesotho reached US$94.37 million (about M1.3 billion), mainly textile raw materials and products, machinery, electrical and ICT products and components.

In 2013, China pledged a duty-free treatment to 95 percent of Lesotho’s products.

Chinese enterprises have invested and operated businesses in several fields such as engineering and construction in the projects of roads, bridges, water pipe-line construction, industrial and commercial and residential buildings, made construction materials such as steel framework and doors, windows production, sand stone products and bricks, import and export business related to agriculture machines and technology.

The investment has not only been money but also expertise in management and marketing skills and industrial technology.

Liu said despite many difficulties confronting China, which is still a developing country with a population of 1.37 billion people, China tries its best to provide development assistance to Lesotho and other African countries.

It also provides concessional loans and cancelled debts as well as giving LDCs zero-tariff treatment.

There is also the people-to-people exchange with training programmes and scholarships as well as aid during emergencies.

For the past 30 years, China has made significant contributions to the social and economic development in Lesotho.

China and Lesotho signed many Economic and Technical Cooperation agreements, under which a series of projects in Lesotho have been funded with grants or interest-free loans.

The Chinese have also contributed through the building of the ’Manthabiseng National Convention Centre, the Butha-Buthe Industrial Park, the National Library & Archives Building, the Radio and Television Network Expansion Project, the New Parliament Building Project, two secondary schools in remote areas of Thaba-Tseka and Qacha’s Nek.

There are also several agricultural assistance projects including two senior agriculture experts who introduced the Juncao (mushroom) cultivation project in Masianokeng.

The Chinese have also assisted by providing technical cooperation in a project to promote better land use and physical planning in the Ministry of Local Government.

There is also the medical cooperation and assistance programme that has seen China dispatch hundreds of doctors to Lesotho.

Since 1997, China has dispatched eight medical teams totalling 103 Chinese doctors who worked in different hospitals in Lesotho.

The Chinese have also donated some medical equipment and medicines to hospitals of Lesotho.

Lesotho has used a US$60 million (about M828 million) concessional loan supplied by the Chinese to help Econet Telecom Lesotho build the national network for telecommunications.

There are more than 1 000 Basotho who participated in various seminars or workshops and multilateral technical training and exchange courses in China.

Currently, the Chinese community living in Lesotho is visiting all districts distributing groceries to the poor and disadvantaged children.

Last month the Chinese community donated 435 food parcels in Thaba-Tseka and Mokhotlong to vulnerable and disabled people.

Speaking at the event, the Thaba-Tseka police commander Senior Superintendent Litsietsi Selimo said Basotho should not complain about the Chinese because “they are the people who are willing to live with us in peace and become part of us”.

Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili told a press conference on Monday that he spoke to a Chinese diplomat while attending a summit in Kenya late last month to help Lesotho realise its development dreams.

He said the Chinese have agreed to help Basotho build a dam that will provide Hlotse and Maputsoe towns with water for both domestic and industrial use.

Today, the Chinese Embassy is in Mokhotlong distributing food aid parcels donated by the Chinese community living in Lesotho to poor families.

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