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Diplomats’ booze saga deepens

  • as ‘Maesaiah, ministers implicated in illegal alcohol trade

Pascalinah Kabi

FIVE politicians namely, ‘Matšepo Ramakoae, Lehlohonolo Moramotse, Monyane Moleleki, Mahali Phamotse and former first lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane, have been implicated in the illegal trade in alcohol which resulted in the recent expulsion of seven Lesotho diplomats from South Africa.

They were allegedly named by some of the expelled diplomats who had last week threatened not to go down alone. Their names were mentioned in a current affairs show on the local Tsenolo FM radio station. The presenter of the programme, Ralikonelo Joki, said the politicians had been named in his conversations with the some of the diplomats who were kicked out of South Africa.

However, ministers Ms Ramakoae (Foreign Affairs and International Relations) and Mr Moramotse (Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs) have vehemently denied the allegations.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Moleleki, who leads the opposition Alliance of Democrats (AD), has also denied the allegations.

Repeated efforts to obtain comments from Ms Thabane and AD secretary general Phamotse were unsuccessful as their mobile phones rang unanswered yesterday.

The five are accused alongside Principal Secretaries (PSs) Tanki Mothae (Foreign Affairs) and ‘Mamonyane Bohloko (Defence and National Security) of benefiting from the illegal alcohol trading allegedly spearheaded by the seven embassy officials who were kicked out of South Africa over the issue.

Two weeks ago, the seven embassy officials and five of their spouses were expelled from South Africa for abusing their diplomatic privileges to engage in the illegal sale of alcohol.

The seven diplomats are Teboho Letseka (Consular Attaché), Malika Sylviah Molapo-Mphofe (Counsellor), Keketso Halio Makhupane (First Secretary), Molefi John Matsoso (Assistant Attaché), Jane Lekunya (Third Secretary), ‘Malebohang Jane (Attaché administration) and Ketso Pitrose Kalake (Attaché’s driver).

They were expelled along with Cephas Kolouoane Jane (husband to Ms Jane), Mathato Joyce Kalake (wife to Mr Kalake), ‘Makhotso Angelinah Matsoso (wife to Mr Matsoso), Limakatso Mafelesi (wife to Mr LJ Ralebesi-Consular Attaché in Durban) and Makagiso Anicia Mabeleng (wife to Mr K Mabeleng- Consular Attaché in Johannesburg).

The South African Revenue Service (SARS) has previously claimed that it had uncovered a tax-dodging racket, in which the diplomats would buy large volumes of alcohol at duty-free retailers and then sell it locally.

According to SARS, the scheme cheated the tax collector of an estimated R100 million a month.

Foreign Affairs and International Relations Minister ‘Matšepo Ramakoae has promised “tough disciplinary measures” against the embassy officials for causing a “serious diplomatic headache” for the country with their embarrassing expulsion from South Africa.

Last week, the diplomats said they would not go down alone. They threatened to name and shame high ranking government officials they say are involved in the scandal.

The threats were communicated by their lawyer, Advocate Letuka Molati, in a letter to Retired Colonel Mothae.

“We represent some of the members of Basotho Staff of the Lesotho High Commission in South Africa who have been declared as persona non grata (unwelcome persons) in South Africa,” Adv Molati stated in his 15 June 2021 letter to Rtd Col Mothae.

“We wish to hold an urgent meeting regarding their matter because there is too much information about and concerning other high-ranking government officials and other people who will not go unscathed in the event of court litigation being embarked upon, your office included. This letter is written with that view in mind so that this matter can be handled with the sensitivity it deserves,” Adv Molati added.

If the radio show is anything to go by, then the disgraced diplomats have made good on their threats by implicating Ms Ramakoae and others in the scandal.

Ms Ramakoae, Messers Moramotse, Moleleki, Ms Thabane, Rtd Col Mothae and Ms Bohloko are accused of sending Mr Kalake to duty-free shops to buy alcohol on their behalf. Mr Kalake is one of the embassy officials who was expelled from South Africa a fortnight ago.

Ms Ramakoae has vehemently denied the allegations, saying “I have never been involved in this”.

“Whoever says I was involved will still have to say how I was involved. This is something that has allegedly been going for years yet I only became a minister a year ago. Even then, I have only been to South Africa twice on special assignments.

“So, I have not had an opportunity to go to the liquor stores to buy alcohol. In any case, I don’t consume alcohol but I can have it for my visitors. But remember, these investigations have been going on because these people were buying alcohol not for consumption but to sell. I don’t have a liquor business in Lesotho, South Africa or anywhere else. As I said before, the issue is ongoing and we will find out what really happened,” Ms Ramakoae said in a weekend interview with the Sunday Express.

On his part, Rtd Col Mothae said he only bought M18 500 worth of alcohol for “household consumption”.

“I always get disappointed with the manner in which the media addresses issues in this country. The issue here is that our diplomats violated the Vienna Convention which provides immunities and privileges for diplomats to buy in a diplomatic shop without paying taxes. But they (expelled diplomats) bought alcohol for resale.

“According to the investigations and report that we got from our High Commission in South Africa, they (expelled diplomats) engaged in transactions of more than hundreds of thousands of maloti almost every week. In my case I spent M18 500 for my personal household issues. (sic)

“For me it was not meant for resale. So, I really don’t see how I’m involved in this. The matter that is on trial is the abuse of privileges by diplomats for their own business purposes and it has nothing to do for what they bought for other people. These (allegations) are probably the last kicks of a dying horse wherein some people do not want to accept that they actually violated the law of another country,” Rtd Col Mothae said.

Ms Bohloko yesterday accused the expelled diplomats of attempting to divert attention from the real issue of their abusing their diplomatic privileges to illegally sell alcohol.

She said her picture had even been photoshopped onto a Facebook page where she is shown with a stack of alcohol.

“I never bought that stack of alcohol they are showing alongside my picture on Facebook. They have photoshopped the picture to gain public sympathy. I don’t have a liquor shop and I have never bought duty-free alcohol for resale. I need you to quote me as saying the PS does not sell alcohol,” Ms Bohloko said.

She added: “These people (expelled diplomats) need help. They have just been hit by the sad reality of what they have done and they are just trying to divert attention from themselves. Instead of going to the ministry of foreign affairs to plead for leniency, they are now making excuses like this one.

“When I was still principal secretary for foreign affairs, I wrote to them and instructed them to stop this illegal practice. But instead of heeding my call, I was insulted on social media and labelled a jealous person, look at them now. They must just humble themselves and ask for forgiveness. What they have done is seriously bad,” Ms Bohloko said.

Mr Moleleki also denied the allegations.

“I have never bought alcohol nor have I instructed anyone to buy alcohol on my behalf. If they did that, they did it out of their own goodwill and voluntarily,” Mr Moleleki said in a brief interview with this publication yesterday.

Mr Moramotse said he was not in a position to react to the allegations.

Ka nnete ha ke arabe lintho tsa joala hobane ha ke noe joala (I don’t respond to alcohol issues because I don’t drink alcohol),” Mr Moramotse said.

Incidentally, Mr Moramotse has a pending court case after being charged last with contravening Covid-19 Regulations. This after he allegedly bought alcohol in contravention of gazetted regulations forbidding such purchases during the ongoing national lockdown.

According to the charge sheet, Mr Moramotse “is charged with contravening Regulations 3(5) and 3(7) and 6 read with Regulation 11 of the Public health Covid-19 Regulations No.28 of 2020”.

He is accused of illegally purchasing two boxes of assorted whiskeys at Borokhoaneng Urban Offsales in Maseru.

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