Maseru - Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has strongly defended his decision to issue diplomatic passports to members of the Gupta family and rejected opposition demands to withdraw them.
He said the diplomatic passports were essential in facilitating their work in securing investments for his country.
“I have appointed them to market the country (Lesotho) in countries where they have influence… These people (the Guptas) are good friends of the ANC and we have good relations with the ANC,” Thabane said in an interview with the Independent Foreign Service at his official residence on Friday.
“I was introduced to them by the ANC president (Jacob Zuma) and other ANC officials… I then appointed them to help scout for investment for my country.
“They have influence in a number of countries that can help Lesotho. They have undertaken to hunt for investors for us.”
The Gupta family precipitated a diplomatic crisis in South Africa last year when they secured special landing rights for a chartered aircraft at Waterkloof Airforce Base, a privilege normally limited to visiting heads of state.
Personal friends of Zuma, the Gupta family has a number of business interests in South Africa, as well as publishing The New Age newspaper and establishing ANN7, a digital TV news network.
Thabane said any insinuations that he had favoured the Guptas in exchange for personal returns were totally wrong and unacceptable.
“I have not taken a penny from the Guptas. I am not corrupt. Check with all the banks the world over… I have not received any money from them…
“I am merely using my office to get developments going for my country,” said Thabane, well known for living humbly.
The Guptas had also signalled that they wanted to invest in the mining sector in Lesotho and he was facilitating on the matter.
“I will not bury my head and shy away from the Guptas… I won’t apologise to anyone for assisting them. Anyone who wants to come and invest… I will assist them.”
Thabane said he had visited India and was eager for Indian businessmen and any others to invest in his country.
He also defended the Guptas as “solid businesspeople” with a good track record in both business and in assisting the ANC “since the days of Mandela while he was still in prison”.
They were also solid and good friends of the ANC, which was a good friend of Lesotho, he said.
Thabane said attempts to besmirch the Guptas with needless controversy without considering the good they had brought through their business acumen, in all places they operated, were unfortunate.
“What is wrong with making good friends with them?”
Thabane said the Guptas were also the first group of ordinary South African millionaires who had asked him for mining opportunities other than the usual big conglomerates like Anglo and De Beers.
He noted that the diplomatic passports issued to the Guptas remained the property of Lesotho, to be returned when their job was done or when circumstances demanded.
Thabane dismissed criticism from his coalition government partner, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader and Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Mothetjoa Metsing, that the decision was taken without consultation and should be withdrawn.
“I acted within my mandate and this has nothing to do with Metsing. I am a prime minister with executive authority and am empowered by the constitution to take certain decisions.
“I also acted within the confines of my ministry… The DPM himself takes a number of decisions without consulting me,” said Thabane, who suspended Parliament last month after Metsing walked out of their coalition pact to form a new alliance with the rival Democratic Congress (DC) of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
Metsing’s party described the decision to give diplomatic passports to the Guptas as an “insult” to Basotho in light on controversies that have dogged the Guptas.
Metsing and Thabane formed a coalition, alongside the Basotho National Party of Thesele Maseribane, after the May 2012 elections failed to produce an outright winner.
Thabane does not have to face a no-confidence vote while parliament is not in session.
The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has intervened to help the feuding parties resolve their problems to ensure stability in the impoverished kingdom, which has experienced its fair share of upheavals in the past, including the 1998 disturbances which saw President Nelson Mandela deploy South African troops to restore order.
Through SADC interventions led by Namibian President Hafikupunye Pohamba, Metsing agreed to rescind his deal with the LCD, while Thabane would undertake moves to end the prorogation of parliament.
Metsing’s party has since announced the cancellation of its deal with the DC “to prove our good faith that we keep our promises”.
But Thabane’s party dismisses the move as a ruse meant to ensure the reopening of parliament for Metsing and Mosisili - who would command a clear majority - to then ambush Thabane with a no-confidence vote.
Independent Foreign Service