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Matekane’s government pulls the plug on protests—again!

Business

Lehlohonolo Motšoari

Just a month after the U.S. government accused Prime Minister Ntsokoane Sam Matekane’s administration of severely curtailing the freedom of peaceful assembly last year, the government has done it again.

On April 22 this year, the U.S. Department of State published its 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, criticising Lesotho for declining to issue a permit for a protest by the opposition Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) in March 2023.

This week, on May 22, small and medium enterprise owners faced similar suppression as their permitted march to deliver an ultimatum to Matekane was abruptly cancelled.

The indigenous Basotho business owners intended to petition Matekane to instruct the Minister of Trade, Industry, and Business Development, Mokhethi Shelile, to enforce licensing regulations that bar foreigners from running certain businesses in Lesotho.

These regulations, part of the Business Licensing and Registration Regulations 2020, were introduced after the Movement for Economic Change (MEC) deputy leader, Tšepang Tšita-Mosena, filed a motion in Parliament in 2020.

Tšita-Mosena, now deputy speaker of the national assembly, highlighted that Basotho businessmen were being edged out by foreigners investing in small businesses across the country.

The regulations prohibit foreigners from owning and operating businesses such as international road freight and logistics, real estate agencies, and fast food outlets without full restaurant services, among others.

Despite some sections being enforced, the specific prohibitions against foreigners are not, prompting the local business owners to organise the march.

The demonstrators, who gathered near Setsoto Stadium in Maseru early Wednesday, were ready to march to the Morena Moshoeshoe I Monument to deliver their petition.

However, they were informed by police that their permit had been cancelled.

In the early hours of Wednesday, a police water cannon was seen parked at the main circle in Maseru, with heavily armed officers from the Special Operations Unit (SOU) patrolling the streets.

“It was with great disappointment to learn that the demonstration we had been given a permit for was no longer valid. We feel harassed, and this is not close to exercising democracy,” said Motlere Thobi, president of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises.

“It is not practicing democracy to wake up early in the morning, at 6am, and dismiss demonstrators, others coming from far-away districts one by one whilst the demonstration was scheduled to start at 10am. They should have waited for us to gather here at the starting point and give us the reasons why we should no longer continue with our peaceful march,” Thobi lamented.

He argued that they should have been notified in writing as to why their permit was cancelled and that the protest should have been postponed instead.

Police allegedly cited their inability to monitor the march as the reason for the cancellation, the same reason they gave when declining a permit for the SR Youth League last year. The U.S. report, however, stated that police likely declined the permit for political reasons.

“The most disturbing issue is that we had a written document (permit) from the police, but the same office made a call last night, telling us to stop the march. There is no written communication now,” Thobi said.

The legal representative of the demonstrators was directed by police to dismiss the crowd near Setsoto Stadium within five minutes.

After dismissing the demonstrators through a loudspeaker, one protester questioned the legality of the cancellation without written notice. Her speech was cut short by a police officer who insisted the five-minute timeframe was over.

Disappointed, the demonstrators marched to the High Court, escorted by police and a water cannon. They sought a court order to allow their planned march to proceed, but the High Court dismissed their application, stating they had not exhausted local remedies.

Despite the setback, the protestors remain determined. “We have written to the Prime Minister’s office to let them know that we will be presenting our petition on June 12,” Thobi said.

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