At least 12 000 jobs are on the line in the country's textile industry with exasperated investors threatening to quit the country over the police's repeated failure to address their safety concerns.
The 12 000 workers are employed at two of the leading textile companies in Maseru and the figure represents about 30 percent of the 40 000 people estimated to be employed by the entire textile industry in the country. However, the potential job losses could be much higher than that after fellow textile companies threatened to follow their colleagues out of the country if long-standing security concerns are not addressed to ensure their personal safety in the country.
In the latest incident pointing to the unstable security situation, senior executives at one of the leading companies are lucky to be alive after being shot at by unknown gunmen in Maseru on Friday at about 6.30 pm on the stretch of road between the Pioneer Mall circle and the golf club.
In an interview with the Lesotho Times this week, the company executives, all of them of Asian origin, said they were ambushed and carjacked by the gunmen who forcibly drove them to automated teller machines (ATMs) in the industrial area and withdrew money from their accounts.
They said this was not the first time they had been subjected to violent crimes and despite reporting the previous cases to the police, none of the perpetrators had been brought to book. They said the deteriorating security situation had forced them to weigh their options and despite their affinity for the country, built over more than two decades of investment, they were considering moving to more stable countries. Mauritius, Tanzania and Angola are being considered as alternatives. These countries are said to be cheaper and closer to the export markets with ports of their own as opposed to landlocked Lesotho. More importantly they offer better security against violent crimes such as shootings and armed robberies.
The investors said the only thing keeping them in Lesotho at a time of political uncertainty and escalating production costs were the relations they had established with workers and other industries in more than 20 years since they first set up shop. They said while they valued these relationships, this could not however, be at the expense of their safety.
Narrating their ordeal to the Lesotho Times on condition of anonymity this week, two factory executives said they were still traumatised by their Friday ordeal at the hands of two unknown gunmen.
"We closed for the day and left the factory in Thetsane just after 6pm and drove in the direction of the border to Ladybrand where we stay," one of the executives told this publication.
"Somewhere between the Pioneer Mall traffic circle and the golf course, a small vehicle pulled up in front of us and blocked our way. Two men got out of the vehicle and one of them immediately opened fire on the passenger side of our vehicle where I was sitting. The bullets shattered the window and narrowly missed me.
"They got into our vehicle and asked my colleague who was driving to move to the back seat. One of them got into the driver's seat and drove off in the direction of the industrial area while the other jumped in beside me in the passenger's seat. The one sitting next to me hit me on the forehead with the butt of his pistol and demanded money.
"I gave them M500 which was in my wallet while my colleague gave them about M1500. The passenger gunman searched and took two bank cards from me and they drove to some ATMs where they demanded the passwords and withdrew money from my Lesotho bank account.
"Initially I gave them the wrong password but I had to change and give them the correct one after they threatened to kill me. After withdrawing about M6000 they gave me back the Lesotho and South African bank cards. They also gave us back our mobile phones, drove to some place where they later gave us back our car and abandoned us.
"We were in a daze and when we used google maps, we discovered that we were somewhere near Moshoeshoe I Airport. We then drove back to the factory to contact our families and plot our next course of action. We only held discussions over the incident with the Thetsane police the next day. They had been informed about our ordeal by the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association (LTEA). One of the senior police officers told us to report the crime at the Maseru Central Police Station and that is something we will do this week."
Yesterday, Police Spokesperson Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli said they still had not received a report of the alleged crime from the LTEA "which normally reports such crimes" to them. Supt Mopeli however, said the police were ready to assist the investors.
"We normally get complaints through the textile association or the Asian association against crime but to date we have not received any reports. However, the police stand ready to assist at all times," Supt Mopeli said yesterday.
Meanwhile, the LTEA secretary, 'Malikhabiso Tlalane Majara, was not reachable for comment with the association's president, David Chen, saying she was out of the country. Mr Chen said he could not comment on the matter as Ms Majara was the only person mandated to do so.
Lesotho has developed into one of Africa's largest exporters of textile products because of the competitive edge offered by African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), first passed by the United States government in 2004.
AGOA allows a select group of African countries, including Lesotho, to export goods including textile products duty free into the US.
As a result, the textile industry has become the lifeblood of the economy with more than 40 000 people directly employed in the sector and thousands more employed in downstream industries. Most of the investors are drawn from Asian countries such as China and Taiwan.
However, the safety concerns and in particular, Friday's incident, threaten the long-term viability of the industry. Shaken investors are considering quitting the country if their safety is not guaranteed.
So serious is the issue that one of the company's investors even flew into the country in the aftermath of the incident. The investor told this publication that they were a market leader in the textile industry with more than 26 years of experience in Lesotho as well as operations in countries such as Mexico, Bangladesh and Taiwan. He said their business spanned five companies in Lesotho with the first having been established in 1991.
He said despite the emergence of new, cheaper and stable alternative investment destinations such as Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia which had previously been blighted by civil wars, they had stuck to their guns and committed to Lesotho because of the strong bond they share with workers, government and related industries. He said it was only now they were considering quitting the country because the safety of their senior management and entire staff could not be sacrificed for any other consideration.
"We are not only speaking for ourselves but for all the Asian investors who have been subjected to carjackings and robberies. Previously the robbers would only take our mobile phones and cash in hand but this time it was far more serious.
"There are new investment destinations that have sprung up in recent times including Mauritius, Tanzania, Angola Mozambique and Ethiopia. Most of these have their own ports and they are much closer to our source and export markets. The labour costs are cheaper and the turnaround time for production and delivery is much faster than it is in Lesotho. This means that it makes economic sense to move to such places.
"But we have been here for close to three decades and we are still here because of the good relations we have with Basotho and the government. We want to stay for as long as possible but we cannot do so when our safety can no longer be guaranteed. The criminals have never been apprehended in previous cases and we no longer feel safe.
"The government should do more to ensure a secure environment or else we will leave and other potential investors will also be scared of coming to Lesotho. We are not experts in crime control but we believe the police should have more patrols to ensure our safety.
"Our textile association has made temporary arrangements with the police to enhance our security by giving them (police) a vehicle to use for patrols. But the government and the police should do more to ensure our safety," the investor said.