Mystery of fat payment for Lesotho king's pal

Lesotho’s Highlands Water Project. (Deaan Vivier)

Lesotho’s Highlands Water Project. (Deaan Vivier)

A Lesotho senior official who served nine years in jail for corruption in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is now under investigation by Lesotho’s anti-corruption body.

Masupha Sole was controversially reappointed as adviser to the scheme, working under Lesotho’s water affairs ministry, after his release from jail in May 2011.

Correspondence in amaBhungane’s possession shows that South Africa, which jointly oversees the water scheme through a bilateral Lesotho Highlands Water Commission, objected to his appointment, saying it would make it more difficult to raise loan finance from the international community.

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In a letter to the Lesotho government dated February 2012, which amaBhungane has seen, South Africa’s former water minister, Edna Molewa, demands Sole’s removal.

Now it has emerged that Lesotho’s directorate on corruption and economic affairs is investigating Sole – allegedly in relation to the R1.6-million salary he received as an adviser for five months between September 2014 and January this year. The directorate’s director general, Borotho Matsoso, confirmed that an investigation was under way but would not provide details.

But informed sources said the investigation centres on how Sole’s services were procured and funded.

Salary
AmaBhungane has been told that there were numerous failed attempts by Lesotho last year to pay Sole’s salary from the budget of the bilateral commission, which is mainly provided by South Africa.

The next move appears to have been to approach the treasury directly on the salary issue.

In a letter seen by amaBhungane dated January 21 this year, the former principal secretary for water affairs, Emmanuel Lesoma, asked the principal secretary of finance, Khosi Letsie, for “authority to pay the salary of Mr Masupha Sole for [the] period ... September 2014 to March 2015” by redirecting money from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project funds to his department.

“As per article 9 (1) of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Treaty, it is the prerogative of each party to appoint suitable expertise whenever there is a need of particular skill to strengthen its team.
As a result, the government of Lesotho has employed Mr Sole to provide advisory services.

“The ministry of finance is therefore requested to give authority to remunerate Mr Sole through the treasury system. Funds are available for the financial year 2014-2015 under the recurrent budget for the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission.

“Authority is also requested to transfer enough funds from the LHWP [Lesotho Highlands Water Project] subvention to the wages approved for financial year 2014-2015 under the commissioner of water.”

Costs
The correspondence further indicates Sole invoiced the ministry on February 10 this year detailing costs incurred for provision of advisory services from September last year until February this year.

The correspondence in amaBhungane’s possession indicates that Letsie gave his approval.

Some insight into the nature of the anticorruption directorate’s investigation is provided by an exchange between the directorate and the commission’s secretary, Charles Mwakalumbwa, this year.

In a response on March 31, seen by amaBhungane, Mwakalumbwa says: “Your letter requests that we furnish your office with a detailed description of the consultancy services alleged to have been provided by Mr Masupha Sole to the LHWC between the periods August 19 2014 [and] February 28 2015.

“Please be advised that Mr Masupha Sole has never provided any consultancy services to the LHWC as described in your letter.”

Lesoma refused to comment, saying he is no longer principal secretary and that questions should be directed to his successor, Khomoatsana Tau, and Letsie could not be contacted. Tau declined to comment on Sole’s salary, saying Sole negotiated his own remuneration package with government.

‘How the council of state thinks’
Sole is said to be a close personal friend of Lesotho’s King Letsie III. He is also said to have significant influence in government, especially over weaker ministers without constituency seats in Parliament who are easily removed from office, including current Water Minister Ralechate Mokose.

The sources also alleged that Sole claims to deal in “information from the council of state for ministers” – the king’s counsellors – and that he advises the minister about “how the council of state thinks”.

The sources alleged that Sole has become close to the prime minister’s son, Rethabile Mosisili, who briefly acted as acting principal secretary after Lesoma was transferred to another ministry.

AmaBhungane has seen minutes of a meeting between Lesotho water affairs officials and members of the bilateral commission in August last year, highlighting Sole’s influence.

It quotes Lesoma as saying the decision-making powers of government delegates to the commission “have been removed forthwith and they will now and in the future remain with Mr Sole”.

When the delegates queried this, “Mr Sole indicated [that] a decision is a done deal as the minister had accepted his advice that any decision for the [Lesotho] delegation will be made by him,” the minutes say.

‘Rubbish’ allegations
Contacted for comment, Sole said he was hired by the Lesotho government to advise the water affairs ministry and questions about his work should be referred to the ministry.

On his “bona fides and profile”, he said the Highlands Water Project had received more than 20 awards for outstanding achievements in engineering, social and environmental fields, “including the project of the century” award.

He said it was public knowledge that the project fell under “my leadership and stewardship”.

Asked whether he was aware he was under investigation, he dismissed all allegations against him as “rubbish”.

AmaBhungane understands Sole’s payment came after battles between him and Lesotho’s chief delegate on the bilateral commission, Charles Putsoane, during former prime minister Thomas Thabane’s tenure.

‘Even the king” thinks so
Putsoane is locked in a labour dispute with the government over alleged moves to remove him from the commission. He would not comment to amaBhungane.

Thabane said the coalition government under his leadership continued to use Sole despite South Africa’s reservations, because he had been reformed by his prison term.

Thabane said Sole has first-hand experience to share about the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and that Lesotho needs his advice.

“He went to prison and I assure you he is corrected now. Even the king thinks he is corrected. We can’t let South Africa dictate to us who we should hire to advise us.”

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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