Wednesday, November 23, 2022
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From farmer to richest man to Prime Minister

This is the story of a boy from central Lesotho who grew up in a family of 14 children. The seventh, Samuel Ntsokoane Matekane (aka Sam), gave up his life as a farmer and came down from the mountains to study at a secondary school in the capital.

Although it would be an exaggeration to describe Maseru as the city of all possibilities, Matekane is just as emancipated as anyone else.

The budding entrepreneur started a small breezeblock factory in 1986. He then invested in road construction, became a subcontractor for a diamond mine (2004), tried his hand at aviation (2009), diversified into real estate and ventured into politics at the age of 64.

Matekane, who thinks he will run the future government like a company, sees this business like any other.

Money as a calling card

His latest start-up is a party called Revolution for Prosperity (RFP). This political formation was created in March 2022 and brought Matekane to power six months later, during the 7 October general elections.

The ambitious man says he entered the arena because he was disgusted with the coalitions that have destabilised Lesotho since 2012.

No government formed over the last decade has lasted long. Matekane dreams of an absolute majority so that he can govern without concession.

Matekane thinks he will run the future government like a company ….

Although the extent of his wealth is not known, he is a glittering success and young voters are drawn to his external signs of wealth.

With money as his calling card, he is making a name for himself in gold letters among the Basotho. He is ‘the richest man in the country’, ‘the man with the first helicopter’ and even ‘the man with the private jet’.

His empire’s prosperity also makes him a leader. “When he says, ‘I’m going to do it this way’, no one questions his word because he has succeeded. And that is new in Lesotho politics,” says Tlohang Letsie, a lecturer in political and administrative studies at the University of Lesotho.

“The country knows the respected businessman, not the politician,” says Montoeli Masoetsa, spokesperson for the All Basotho Convention (ABC), which only won eight seats. “He is a competent man, he can succeed if he surrounds himself with politically mature men,” he says.

Not very talkative, Matekane describes his entrepreneurial background using clichés. In interviews, he recites the story of a man who started from nothing, built himself up, believed in his dreams and learned from his failures. This speech – heard elsewhere – sounds less hollow in Lesotho, where success stories are not commonplace.

Spoiled by life, Matekane devotes part of his time and wealth to his community through his foundation. He demonstrates his philanthropy by developing his home village of Mantšonyane, where 64.6% of voters voted for him.

“The infrastructure there is better than in the capital,” says RFP spokesman David Mohapi. Elsewhere in the country, he is best remembered for his role in fighting against Covid-19.

Anti-Covid hero

In January 2021, Matekane launched Sesiu Sa Letšoele Le Beta Poho (Unity is Strength), an organisation designed to centralise donations from the private sector to buy vaccines and laboratory equipment.

He became the man of the hour while pointing out the government’s shortcomings. “Together [with the government], we said we had to try to save the nation,” Matekane reiterated in a television interview in August 2021.

He was elevated to hero status. The rest of his speech was less admirable. “If this nation dies from this pandemic, we won’t have any consumers tomorrow,” said the businessman.

Matekane may be tempted to favour the Matekane Group of Companies (MGC) once in a position of authority.

“You will see that he will pay his companies with public funds. They will continue to work for the government. This is corruption at the highest level,” said Serialong Qoo, spokesperson for the Democratic Congress (DC).

This party, which came second in the elections, is expected to represent the opposition in the next term. But Matekane denies any conflict of interest and says he will step aside from his business.

You will see that he will pay his companies with public funds.”

He will also be forced to delegate some of his power. The 7 October elections did not give him the absolute majority he was aiming for.

After winning 56 out of 120 seats, his party had to negotiate with the Movement for Economic Change (MEC) and the Alliance of Democrats (AD) to reach 65 seats. The next government’s composition and its programme will depend on this coalition.

Fighting corruption

Fighting corruption – “the worst disease” – will be one of his priorities, he told the BBC. He also wants to better train and depoliticise the army, which has been known for coups (in 1986 and 1991) and attempted coups (2014).

Despite this, the tycoon showered the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) with donations last March when he launched his party.

Within the coalition, the three allies have agreed on an austerity programme. They promise to cut government spending by not having official residences and cars. This is a small sacrifice for this lover of beautiful cars, as he will simply have to turn to his personal collection, which is made up of a Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin.

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