THE former cast of Our Times comprising of 32 actors have pleaded with Communications minister, Joang Molapo, to bar the airing of local soap opera on national television until their 'payment dispute' with the show's producer, Motheea Mpharoane, are resolved.
Our Times explores the themes of betrayal, tragedy, romance and tradition among others.
The soapie aired on South African broadcaster eTV's continental service e-Africa in January until March 2016.
It started airing on Lesotho National Broadcasting Services (LNBS) in May 2017 from Monday to Wednesday at 8:30pm and it is still showing.
When shooting began in 2013, the team, which was then made up of 54 members, agreed to work for free and would be remunerated when the soapie started making money. In July 2016, 32 of the cast parted ways with Mpharoane's Landlocked Entertainment Company due to poor working relations.
Addressing the media in Maseru on Tuesday, the 32 former cast members said Mpharoane should compensate them for the time they worked on the soapie as they had initially agreed. They said they did not want to return to the soapie because the working relations had already soured and Mpharoane was already insulting them before they parted ways and made it clear that he no longer wanted to work with them.
Their argument is that if Landlocked Entertainment's contract is renewed before addressing their concerns, Mpharoane will continue enriching himself with the taxpayers' money while exploiting Basotho through their talents.
"We worked for three years for Landlocked Entertainment without pay as we had agreed that we would be compensated once Our Times starts selling and also discuss working contracts," said one of the actors', 'Mantṧalla Ramakhula.
"We used our own wardrobe, transport and fed ourselves while also bringing to the set our own equipment such as pots for a kitchen shooting and bedding for bedroom scenes. The men were also used as labourers when building the studio.
"Due to the fact that we believed so much in the product, we sacrificed our talents and others were from outside Maseru and had to rent flats here in Maseru. During the third year Etv bought Our Times but two months passed without any word from Ntate Motheea. Some of us were also featured on one of the local insurance companies' billboard adverts but never got the money we were promised."
She further stated that they met with Mpharoane who told them that the money was too little and would only suffice to upgrade the studio. They continued working without pay and three months later the government of Lesotho also bought rights to air the soapie. Only then were they offered one year working contracts but to their surprise, the salaries ranged from M800 and M2000 which they considered too little.
They then asked the Ministry of Labour and Employment as well as LNBS to intervene and a day after those meetings they were presented with dismissal letters. They were only three months into the one year contracts when they were dismissed. They were paid for the remaining nine months when they were dismissed.
Another former actor said they were now speaking out "because we want the entire nation to know what kind of Mpharoane is and we also learned that he is seeking a renewal of the contract with LNBS".
We plead with Ntate Joang not to permit the renewal of the contract because Ntate Motheea will continue exploiting Basotho. We hope we will be the last group of people he abused.
"We only learned about the true figure that the government paid for Our Times through Ntate Joang when said in parliament few weeks ago that it was M4 million. We believe that the government thought the money would be used to pay staff whereas it was meant to make Ntate Motheea rich.
"We want to meet the minister in person so that we can be able to narrate our ordeal to him. We are a team that comprises of camera operators, technicians, actors and set designers so we can work on our own if we get equipment," the actor said.
However, Mpharoane told this publication that the 32 left on their own free will and both parties signed termination contracts which he paid out.
"They are lying when they say I owe them money because the contract we signed when terminating working relations indicate that I pay them for the remaining nine months of the contracts they had initially signed and neither Landlocked Entertainment nor they can demand anything from the other thereafter," Mpharoane said.
Part of the contract signed on 27 July 2016 and seen by the Weekender reads: "It is hereby agreed by the two parties that upon signature of this termination agreement neither party shall have any further recourse or claim in relation to this terminated employment contract or any other contract prior to this one which established an employer and employee relationship".
Mpharoane also produced another document which indicated that the 32 filed a case before Directorate of Dispute Prevention and Resolution (DDPR). The document bearing a DDPR stamp of 29 August 2017 indicated that the case was withdrawn after noting that the two parties had already settled their issues.
"When they took Landlocked Entertainment to the DDPR, their lawyer was surprised to learn of the mutual agreement we signed when parted ways therefore the case had to be thrown out.
"Now that they learn I am working to have the contract with LNBS renewed they want to hinder the process by claiming I owe them. If I really owe them, why don't they ask LNBS to renew the contract but give them their share from that money? It is clear that their motive now is just to sabotage the project since they are aware it is garnering positive reviews.
"I agree that the money I paid them was little, and it is because the money the company had was little to cover salaries they demanded. They left on their own so I do not understand why they do not produce their own soapie so that we may compete for the LNBS tender and besides the government has appealed for local productions," Mpharoane said.