Earlier this week on my regular social media run, I came across this status update on Facebook: “I wonder if makin [sic] death threats on these asian traders will really address anythn [sic], the commotion on radio is just misleading everyone.” Immediately, a story started forming tentacles in front of my eyes; “sinophobes!”, I exclaimed to myself. In December 2012, the government of Lesotho had, through its ministry of Trade and Industry, shut down shops in and around Maseru. Earlier raids seem to have been conducted, but Chinese-owned shops have been known to sell less-than-appealing food to their Basotho customers for years, most of which are not well-to-do and hence cannot afford to buy groceries from elsewhere.

After contacting my man on the ground, Sechaba Keketsi, my mind got made up beyond reasonable doubt that Basotho’s inherent despise towards Chinese people was at play. This sentiment was advanced by Puseletso Ramokhethi, a motor-mouth radio host whose utterances on her breakfast show on PC FM are questionable at best. For instance, she uttered the following on her show: “re tla bua ka libolu tsa machina ho fihlela motho e mong boholong a utloa bohloko. Ke kene ra thola” — which translates to “we’ll speak about the Chinese’s rotten food until someone in authority takes note.” The overall tone of the utterance could easily pass for hate speech.

Lesotho’s media industry is not well-regulated, especially the airwaves with their quirky and questionable personalities such as Moafrika FM’s Ratabane “Candy” Ramainoane, a cult personality who employs a range of tools, from semi-traditionalist rhetoric to outright Christian fundamentalist utterances to spread his propaganda. His facebook profile describes him as “The Prophet, Apostle and Community Leader inspired by the Word of God.” “They need to be shown the exit door as early as yesterday,” he has said of Chinese traders whom he alleges are “poisining [sic] the entire Basotho nation with food and bevarages.”

The Lesotho Times reported the following from a press conference by the principal secretary in the Ministry of Trade, Moahloli Mphaka:

Mphaka said […] the crackdown against supermarkets selling expired foodstuffs is not aimed at Chinese-owned businesses.

His comments come in the wake of a country-wide campaign […] to stop businesses from selling expired products including foodstuffs.

China’s ambassador to Lesotho, Hu Dingxian, had expressed concerns that the campaign might turn into xenophobic attacks against Chinese nationals … Hu added that if Basotho attack the Chinese, relations between the two countries might be affected.

One of the shops that was mentioned is a Chinese-run meat outlet, Sky Country, which was alleged to be selling rotten meat … Basotho have in the past accused the government of turning a blind eye to Chinese businessmen selling rotten food.

The operation to inspect all supermarkets and close those that do not abide by the law is being driven by the Trade Ministry, Health Ministry, Department of Immigration, the police and the Maseru City Council … Maseru district police commander, Senior Superintendent Mofokeng Kolo, said they have so far taken three cases to court. He said the cases could not proceed “because we did not have a Chinese interpreter … We charged another Chinese businessman for sleeping at his business premises but we did not have evidence that we could present before the courts of law.”

It is interesting to note the mild intimidation coming from the Chinese embassy’s side. Also, there is growing concern about how quick the police deal with these cases, with various sectors alleging that junior police officers get transferred to remote outposts whenever they attempt to investigate any cases directly involving Chinese shop owners.

* Additional thoughts by Sechaba Keketsi. For a bit of background reading on the Chinese in Lesotho, see here and here.