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Moleko’s Belgium visit raises questions amidst Letšeng’s environmental crimes

Business

Pascalinah Kabi

This investigation was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Centre.

Natural Resources Minister Mohlomi Moleko and his wife travelled to Brussels, Belgium, in June 2023 to meet with Gem Diamonds officials.

Their visit to Belgium took place five months after Moleko disregarded a damning report calling for decisive action against Letšeng Diamonds Mine for environmental crimes in Mokhotlong.

A January 2023 report compiled by the Department of Water Affairs emphasised the need for serious measures against Letšeng Diamonds Mine for intentionally polluting Maloraneng stream, which contradicted their quarterly reports.

Despite this recommendation, Moleko has not taken any action against the mine. Instead, he and his wife, ‘Mamohaneng, flew from Johannesburg to Brussels on July 3, 2023.

During their time in Brussels, Moleko visited Gem Diamonds’ offices. Gem Diamonds holds 70 percent of the shares in Letšeng Diamonds Mine, with the Lesotho government owning the remaining share. Gem, listed on the London Stock Exchange, conducts its sales and marketing operations from Antwerp, Belgium.

Moleko adamantly refutes any suggestion that his meeting with Gem Diamonds was an attempt to downplay environmental crimes.

“My answer to question four (allegations that your Brussels tour influenced your decision to disregard water pollution findings) is BS (bulls**t),” said Moleko on March 19, 2024.

This is despite that two months and two days after his return from Belgium, Moleko hosted a public mining dialogue, seemingly aimed at diverting public scrutiny from the mining industry.

“Mines are among the largest contributors to our country’s economy. However, there are issues where they exploit Basotho and fail to operate ethically. This is shameful considering their significant contribution to the nation,” Moleko said on August 14, 2023 during the public dialogue on mining in Lesotho.

Moleko drew a parallel between criticism of the mining industry and national grievances regarding the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) – a multi-billion Maluti water deal between Lesotho and South Africa.

“Given that these projects fall under my Ministry of Natural Resources, which also oversees water resources, let us address these concerns. It is embarrassing that the industries that provide significant benefits come under attack. For example, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project generates approximately M1.6 billion annually, yet it faces numerous unfounded criticisms.”

Moleko’s Brussels itinerary

As of today, Minister Moleko’s journey to Belgium has not been covered by the local media, despite the announcement made by the Flanders Chancellery and Foreign Office on July 10, 2023, regarding Moleko’s presence in Belgium.

“Today (July 10) Minister-President Jambon received Mohlomi Moleko, the Lesotho Minister of Natural Resources. Minister Moleko is responsible for the mining, water and energy sectors,” read the Belgium website.

Meanwhile, Moleko’s itinerary, seen by this journalist, shows that he and his wife, ‘Mamohaneng Moleko, departed from OR Tambo International Airport on July 3, 2023, bound for Dubai.

On July 4, 2023, they endured an eight-hour flight from Dubai to Brussels, where they were transported by John Daelemans from Brussels airport to Antwerp. Antwerp, where Gem Diamonds Marketing Services BVBA, a subsidiary of Gem Diamonds, is located, was the destination of Minister Moleko’s visit.

On July 5, 2023, Minister Moleko participated in a series of introductory meetings, process walkthroughs, and toured Gem Diamonds’ tender and valuation facility. His engagements began at 9 a.m. and lasted until his lunch break at 12 noon.

Following this, on July 6, Minister Moleko and his wife travelled by train from Brussels to Paris for a casual meeting with the VCA team at Place Vendome.

The itinerary further reveals that Gem Diamonds’ chief executive officer, Clifford Elphick, departed from Paris to London, Britain, placing Moleko and Elphick in the same location simultaneously.

Contacted for comment on March 19, 2024, Minister Moleko asked this journalist to come to his office the following day – March 20.

“I have a report I can share with you regarding my Antwerp trip Ms. I suggest you come to my office tomorrow morning at 8 or Thursday whichever suits you,” Moleko said.

Upon arrival, Moleko explained that he had forgotten about a prior commitment for a meeting, which conflicted with the scheduled 8 am interview with this journalist, rendering him unable to proceed with the interview.

However, when he provided his Brussels report to this journalist, he emphasised that the Department of Water Affairs had mishandled the investigation report concerning Letšeng Diamonds Mine.

“They (Department of Water Affairs) made a mistake by not providing and discussing the report with Letšeng. The normal thing is that once you have audited someone, you must give them the audit report for them to answer. So that process began in January this year,” Moleko said.

‘You are being unfair to me’ – Moleko

When questioned about the lack of implementation regarding the Department of Water Affairs’ recommendation for decisive action against Letšeng Diamonds Mine, Moleko stated that he was unaware of the report until it surfaced in the media.

“They (Water Affairs) did not give the report to Letšeng, but we knew, or they (Letšeng) knew about it (report) through the media when they were responding to media questions,” explained Moleko.

He then disclosed that Letšeng Diamonds Mine and the Department of Water Affairs have established a technical team, which has convened approximately four times since January 2024.

“They formed a technical team comprising members from the Department of Water Affairs and Letšeng to address these issues. They informed me that they have agreed to conduct another test sometime in April to determine whether there has been any improvement or assess the current situation,” Moleko stated.

When asked if this technical team was a government’s strategy to address Letšeng Diamonds Mine’s water pollution, which violates both the Environment Act of 2008 and the Water Act of 2008, Moleko responded, “No, how would they do that?”

“They (Letšeng) have an obligation to respond. That’s why I believe that once an audit is conducted fairly, and the issues are identified, they must be held accountable.”

When queried about Letšeng Diamonds Mine’s response or whether conducting water tests was the mine’s reaction to the Department of Water Affairs’ findings, Moleko expressed frustration, deeming the journalist’s line of questioning unfair.

“You’re interviewing me now when I’ve clearly stated that I have another meeting. This is unfair to me. Take this report, and I will schedule another appointment with you or send me your questions.”

Moleko then suggested that the journalist interview Maseatile Motoho, Director of the Department of Water Affairs. When informed that Motoho had not responded to questions emailed on January 25, 2024, and had ignored multiple follow-up requests, Moleko requested that the questions be sent to him instead. Upon receiving them via WhatsApp, Moleko assured: “We will respond, Ms.”

The next day, he shared a video on World Water Day, to which the journalist responded with thanks. Moleko promptly replied, “I will make time, Ms, after this busy parliamentary session.”

Meanwhile, Letšeng Diamonds Mine said people needed to understand that the mine was not given an opportunity to comment or address the report or its findings prior to media reports.

“It is also to be understood that as much as the report was compiled in February 2023, it was only published several months later in November 2023, thus not reflecting the pertaining situation at the time of publication.

“As such subsequent meetings have since been held between Letšeng Diamonds and DWA on this matter, and an understanding has been reached on matters of concern. Therefore, Letšeng Diamonds does not offer any comments for public consumption on the January/February 2023 report, being referred to. We will be happy to engage on the revised report when it becomes published,” read Letseng’s emailed responses.

‘I was invited to Brussels by Letšeng, EU’

On the other hand, the report handed over by Moleko to this journalist outlined that the minister was invited to Brussels by Letšeng Diamonds Mine and the European Union Delegation. However, it is not clear to whom the report was presented.

“The mission was undertaken due to invitations from Letšeng Diamond mining company and the European Union Delegation,” read the report.

It also indicated that the delegation consisted of Moleko and Dr. Albert Butare, described as the Project Lead providing support for energy sector reforms in Lesotho and serving as an advisor to the Minister of Natural Resources on Energy.

Dr. Butare, a former Minister of State for Infrastructure in Rwanda, was reportedly relieved of his duties alongside his superior, Linda Bihire, in December 2009.

According to a 2014 article by Rwanda Today, Rwandan President Paul Kagame justified the reshuffle by stating that changes were necessary when results were lacking.

The article suggested that the duo, Butare and Bihire, had failed to meet expectations in the energy and infrastructure sectors, which were crucial for Rwanda to achieve its development goals.Top of Form

Meanwhile, Moleko’s report concluded by stating that “the mission was a success in terms of managing the schedule which was generally very tight.”

“The meetings’ environment was very friendly and welcoming and more so, the discussions went very well with positive outcomes. The team in Lesotho directly and through the Embassy in Brussels as well as EUD (European Union Delegation) in Lesotho shall make a close follow-up on all the agreed upon deliberations to ensure implementation of the outcomes,” concluded Moleko’s report.

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