Africa

Lesotho's Propane Lebesa implicated in student-rent fraud

Thabang Matjama

Former Lesotho Trade Minister Propane Lebesa benefited from a government scheme that was intended to pay the rent of students studying in SA.

Two students say they had narrowly escaped eviction for non-payment of rent in 2009 when the Lesotho government stepped in and paid the landlords directly. (Oupas Nkosi, MG)

The <em>M&G</em> has also learned that Lebesa was and still is  the business partner of Bothata Mahlala, who is suspected of defrauding the scheme of millions of rands in 2009.

In an interview, Lebesa confirmed that a company of which both he and Mahlala were directors, New Age Investments, acted as a middleman in paying for students accommodation in Bloemfontein and Johannesburg in 2008.

 At the time he was Lesotho's trade minister, a job he lost in October 2010 when he was sacked by former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili. He is now an MP of the opposition Democratic Congress.

"Yes, I am a shareholder of the New Age Investments. But the company only operated for one year and was not involved in any disappearance of money," Lebesa said in an interview last week.

He declined to say how much the company had made from the deal with Lesotho's National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS), the government¹s bursary department.

Providing details of Mahlala's alleged role in the disappearance of funds, the director of Lesotho's ministry of development planning, Refiloe Makeka, said that the government had an unwritten agreement with him to pay the rent of more than 500 Basotho students studying at the University of the Free State and Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein and the University of Johannesburg in 2009.

The money was deposited in the account of a company owned by Mahlala, Four Rivers.

<strong>Legal action</strong>
Makeka said that he had failed to pay the relevant landlords for an entire semester, between June and December of that year.

She confirmed that the government was preparing to lay charges against him. "The government is taking a legal action against Mahlala. We¹ve met him several times and he promised to pay but he never fulfilled his promise," she said.

A <em>Mail & Guardian</em> investigation showed that Lebesa and Mahlala were also 50% co-owners of Sea of Mountains Trading 558 in 2009, an arrangement that has continued to the present day. Together with Lebesa's current wife, Mammoke Lebesa (then Seliane), they were  and still are  co-directors of Golden Ribbon Trading 396 and Auroscan Investments.

Auroscan's core business is real estate, according to Companies and Intellectual Property Commission. All three companies are registered in South Africa.

Two students interviewed by the <em>M&G</em> said they had narrowly escaped eviction for non-payment of rent in 2009 when the Lesotho government stepped in and paid the landlords directly.

 However, their electricity and water was cut off.

The <em>M&G</em> was told by former student that her rent at the time was R1&nbsp;500 a month. Assuming the other students paid a similar amount, up to three million maluti (R3-million) may have disappeared.

<strong>Dire situation</strong>
A South African company search showed that Aurescon Investments was registered in September 2008 and had an office at Villa Verron, a block of flats used by Basotho students on the corner of Victoria Road and President Boshoff Street in Bloemfontein until November 2009.

They said the situation became so dire that the NMDS intervened by relocating students to Navalsig in Bloemfontein where they were accommodated in crowded digs.

"All we knew was that Bothata was supposed to pay rent after we were made to fill a form at the NMDS that guaranteed accommodation," said one former student who preferred to remain anonymous.

The students were made to sign forms at the NMDS along with bursary contracts. Mahlala would then find accommodation for them off campus in Bloemfontein, without the students themselves being able choose where they wanted to stay.

"We went for months without electricity when he failed to pay the rent. Water was also cut off and life became unbearable. Imagine: it was just after winter so the nights could get really cold," the student added.

She said their academic work suffered, as they had to use candles for lighting. They also had to abandon their work and go to sleep early because there was no electricity.

<strong>Ripped off</strong>
Another former student of the University of Johannesburg said Mahlala could have "ripped off" the Lesotho government in another way, because the conditions at Perth Road in the Johannesburg suburb of Westdene, where other Lesotho students were accommodated, were not up to scratch.

"I suspect the money he paid at Westdene was much lower than he claimed," he said.

Mahlala admitted to a Lesotho's Sunday Express newspaper that he had billed the NMDS M20 800 per student in 2009 but was paid M19 000. That means that the Lesotho government ofLesotho deposited about M9 million into Mahlala's account - despite the absence of a formal written agreement.

The NMDS declined to give details of the deal, although an official, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Mahlala did not have a written agreement with the secretariat.

Former NMDS director Karabo Mabote was sacked in 2009 without explanation. However, it was suspected that he couldhave reached a deal with Mahlala to benefit himself.

Mohlala's current whereabouts are unknown, and the <em>M&G</em> was unable to contact him for comment.

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