Sam Matekane has taken a lot of risks in his life – it’s the way he managed to build a multimillion dollar mining empire and become one of Lesotho’s most formidable businessmen. But those close to him say politics is by far his biggest bet.
“It was not an easy decision for him because politics is poisoned. But the country went down, the economy, everything collapsed and something had to change,” Teboho Kobeli, his friend of more than 30 years and business partner, told the UKTN.
The 64-year-old, who until recently headed the Matekane Group of Companies (MGC) — a business empire that includes mining, aviation and real estate development — has become the mountain kingdom’s newest prime minister.
A huge challenge given the political and economic turmoil in the country, where no prime minister has served his term in ten years.
“Sam decided it was worth sacrificing himself if it saves Lesotho,” Kobeli said.
The diamond mining magnate is a political novice, having started his bid for the top job with a party he launched just five months before the election.
But does he have what it takes to change Lesotho’s fortune?
“Sam doesn’t like to fail,” Kobeli, who owns a textile company, told me.
“He has a determination I’ve never seen in anyone” [else]. If he starts something, be sure that he will see it through to the end and make sure it succeeds.
“What he doesn’t know, he works hard to learn and makes sure he has people with expertise around him. That’s what gives him his edge.”
Kobeli says the political arena will be no different: “He will put everything of himself into it.”
No military patrols
We met in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, a small, bustling old town whose streets draw attention to two of the main problems facing the country:
Young people selling fruit and vegetables by the side of the road – a not so subtle sign of the lack of jobs and prospects
A handful of workers work frantically to fix potholed roads, painstakingly filling the craters that make driving a challenge — a nod to the country’s strained infrastructure.
Having dealt with the boisterous and sometimes tense politics of Lesotho over the years, the mood seems more light-hearted than on my previous visits.
It is striking that there are no military patrols on the streets and that people seem more comfortable talking about politics when asked.
25-year-old aspiring podcaster Katleho Selatela testified: “It feels like we can be critical of the government and not worry about security. It feels like we can be proud to be Basotho again.”
Another resident, retired soldier Mokaba Matlalane, attributed this change to Mr. Matekane.
“We have suffered for many years and our governments have failed us,” the 72-year-old told me.
“If he does for Lesotho what he has done for his companies, he can be our savior.”
Missed from school to farm
Mr. Matekane is a respected businessman in the small country of 2.2 million inhabitants and completely surrounded by South Africa. But outside of business, he is best known for his philanthropy.
Over the years, he has built a school that provides sponsorship, started hospital wards, a football stadium and agricultural projects to get people to work and earn a living in his native village of Mantšonyane.
He is the seventh of 14 children of farmers. Village life was demanding and school alternated between herding the family’s livestock and working the fields – every child expected to help, which sometimes meant missing lessons for days.
With many mouths to feed in Matekane’s household, his parents sent him to Maseru to live with relatives when he was old enough.
“Dad didn’t go as far as he would have liked in school – this is one of the reasons he feels led to help children in similar circumstances get an education,” his daughter-in-law, Mamotake Matekane, told the UKTN.
She is married to one of Mr. Matekane’s six children, has been with MGC for over ten years and is now the chief operations officer, describing her father-in-law as “all business”.
“He takes what he does seriously, he is results-oriented. He has an impeccable eye for detail, a sharp memory and misses nothing.”
Ms. Matekane then warned, half jokingly: “I hope the people in the government understand that about him and are ready. That’s what Lesotho gets.
“He’s warm, giving, loyal but also believes in doing what you’ve said you’ll do. There’s no underperformance on his watch.”
The switch to politics was an unexpected adjustment for his family.
When Mr Matekane, a grandfather of seven who lost his wife to cancer last year, called a rally to tell them he was going to form a political party, the news was initially met with concern, his daughter-in-law said.
“One of his sisters even shed a tear. Some worried about his safety, some about what this would do to the businesses and legacy he’s built over 30 years.”
But he was determined, she said, telling them, “Our family has the option to leave and rebuild our lives elsewhere, but what about the rest of Basotho? What about them? I have to trying to do something.”
‘It’s his game to lose’
It is a sacrifice that seems to be paying off.
Back in his village, where infrastructure is sparse and modest homes on the mountainsides and valleys of the one-street neighborhood, people beamed with pride as they talked about the new prime minister.
“We have hope. I’ve never voted before, it didn’t seem worth the time, but when Mr. Matekane entered politics, everything changed for me,” said 36-year-old street vendor Maretsepile Kapoko.
“I think if he could bring so many good things to our village with his own money, how much more so for Lesotho when he runs the country,” she said.
But Mr. Matekane has done his job for him. Running the government is not a one-man business and many politicians in Lesotho are seen as infected, experts warn.
Since independence from the UK in 1966, there have been a number of military coups, including one in 2014, and three national elections in the last five years.
For ten years, none of Lesotho’s political parties has gathered enough votes to form a government. As a result, the country has been governed by coalitions that have proved fickle, and no prime minister has served a full five-year term.
Mr Matekane’s newly formed Revolution for Prosperity Party (RFP) won 56 constituencies and failed to reach 72 by an outright majority, inviting two smaller parties to a coalition.
But as the dominant partner, political analysts believe the new prime minister is well placed to end the string of short-lived terms.
“It’s his game to lose,” said Dr Thlolohang Letsie, head of the political department at the National University of Lesotho.
“Two things count in his favor: he has the goodwill of the people and the older parties have been humiliated in the polls – some are even more divided now than before.”
Politics aside, the economy is a mess. Unemployment and poverty have worsened in recent years and hundreds of thousands of Basotho face food insecurity.
If this were a business venture, it would be considered a bad investment by some.
But his loved ones say he is driven by his love for Lesotho and her people and is therefore willing to risk everything.
“If he governs using his firm business ethics, he has the power to make this work,” said Dr. letsie.
But he warns: “He must remain brave and show leadership as he does in business.”