Lesotho wool industry woes deepen as SA testing bureau withholds certification

Lesotho Wool Centre manager and Chinese national Stone Shi has accused his competitors - South African wool brokers - and the bureau of ganging up against him.

Farmers belonging to the Lesotho Wool and Mohair Association at a factory. Picture: Supplied.

JOHANNESBURG - The South Africa Wool Testing Bureau in Port Elizabeth has added to the troubles of the embattled Lesotho Wool Centre, saying it's operations do not meet internationally accepted testing standards for certification.

This after centre manager and Chinese national - Stone Shi, accused his competitors - South African wool brokers - and the bureau of ganging up against him.

About 40,000 Lesotho wool and mohair farmers say the centre hasn’t paid them, and they have embarked on a campaign in South Africa to call on buyers to boycott their produce, and to put pressure on the Lesotho government to repeal regulations that force them to export through the centre.

Shi also accuses South African brokers of influencing Wool Testing Bureau South Africa to stop testing wool from Lesotho.

“South Africa wool testing bureau stopped testing for Lesotho; I don’t know why,” he said.

But Wool Testing Bureau South Africa’s Wian Heath said Shi's wool centre didn’t meet International Wool Textile Organisation standards.

“Those regulations specify specific methods of sampling the wool, there’s no certified calibrated scales, no machines to take samples in the correct manner - in this case we feel that those aren’t met,” he said.

Lesotho farmers also want South African farmers to stop exporting food and other commodities to the land-locked kingdom in solidarity, to render the country dysfunctional.

Khotsang Moshoeshoe has become the face of the farmers after he was arrested for disobeying orders from the minister of trade to close a wool shed in the remote wool- and mohair-rich district of Mokhotlong.

Moshoeshoe was subsequently arrested and held in custody for 16 days without a charge. He said he and other members of the association had won five court challenges against Shi and the government, but those rulings were being ignored.

“When a democratically elected government doesn’t comply with court orders what else can you do other than lobbying for regime change? We are lobbying members of Parliament from our constituencies, so it’s not treason or a coup détat, we are asking for the people who have installed the prime minister to remove him. I am not fearing arrest, I cannot keep quiet when the government is trampling on our rights,” said Moshoeshoe.

Now he is leading a campaign to call on international buyers to boycott Lesotho wool and mohair and accuses the government of forcing farmers to export with Shi by introducing regulations in 2018 that made him the only qualified broker.

Moshoeshoe said some farmers initially held on to their wool, but government sent police and the army to break the locks on their wool sheds, and gave the wool to Shi, who still hasn’t paid many farmers. Those that have been paid were paid "peanuts", he said.

“The way Lesotho wool and mohair has been taken from its owners, Stone Shi doesn’t have a contract with us the growers and he doesn’t hold auctions, so we the owners call it blood wool and mohair. We want buyers to boycott it.”

The farmers say in the past they would get paid within a week after their wool was sold at the auction floor of the wool exchange in Port Elizabeth, but now hundreds of farmers queue at banks daily, only to go back home empty-handed.

Moshoeshoe said farmers who rely solely on this industry were selling their flocks to make ends meet, and come the next shearing season, many would export half of their usual produce.

The Shi's wool centre maintains its payments are going as scheduled, even though images of queuing farmers go viral daily.

This week Shi unsuccessfully attempted to address farmers in Mokhotlong. Police had to intervene to calm down the farmers who were getting agitated.

Initially, Shi claimed that payments were delayed by the Central Bank of Lesotho, which processes foreign currency payments, but the bank has issued a statement denying this.

“The Central Bank of Lesotho advises the public that it does not have an account for Lesotho Wool and Mohair Centre and that it is not involved in the payment of anyone by Lesotho Wool and Mohair Centre. It is, therefore, inaccurate and misleading to state that one of the reasons for delays in the payment to wool and mohair farmers could be red tape at the Central Bank of Lesotho,” reads the statement.