Lesotho MP implicated in student-rent fraud

Former Lesotho Trade Minister Propane Lebesa benefited while still in office from a government scheme that was intended to pay the rent of students studying in South Africa.

The Mail & Guardian has learned that Lebesa was — and still is — the business partner of Bothata Mahlala, who is suspected of defrauding the scheme of millions of rand in 2009.

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.

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

He declined to say how much the company had made from the deal with Lesotho's National Manpower Development Secretariat, the government's 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, Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein and the University of Johannesburg in 2009.

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

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 legal action against Mahlala. We have met him several times and he promised to pay, but never fulfilled his promise," she said.

An M&G investigation showed that Lebesa and Mahlala were also 50% co-owners of Sea of Mountains Trading 558 in 2009, an arrangement that continues to this 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 the Companies and Intellectual Properties Office.

All three are registered in South Africa.

Two students said they 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.

A former student said her rent at the time was R1 500 a month.

Assuming the other students paid a similar amount, up to three-million maluti (R3-million) may have disappeared.

The situation became so dire, Bloemfontein students said, the Lesotho secretariat intervened by relocating them to Navalsig, where they were accommodated in crowded digs.

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

Mahlala's whereabouts are unknown.

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