For 14 years, Mathabo Mabekhla was one of Lesotho's most successful entrepreneurs. Her ladies' clothing boutique sold dresses, blouses and slacks imported from neighbouring South Africa, and boasted a client base that included cabinet ministers and their wives.
But dwindling sales forced her to shut down last year, for which she blames the country's growing community of Chinese retailers. "Chinese are selling very cheap and not good quality things, and they are killing Basotho businesses," said Mabekhla, 59.
She now sells cigarettes and beaded jewellery on the sidewalk in the capital, Maseru. "The Chinese, they must go back home," Mabekhla told IRIN. "We don't want Chinese here."
Anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise in Lesotho, making it the latest site of such ethnic hostilities in Africa. A growing number of Basotho blame Chinese immigrants for the ongoing poverty of the small landlocked country, which has few natural resources and depends heavily on remittances from workers in its giant neighbour, South Africa.
Mabekhla's reaction, stoked by opposition parties and local radio stations, is readily echoed from the streets of Maseru to remote villages. "If this government was not in power and we had a new government, we'd just take all the Chinese nicely out to the airport and send them back home," she said.
"They are killing Basotho businesses all over! Up in the mountains you find Chinese; they are all over and they're killing us!"
China's ties with resource-rich Africa have created a growing class of Chinese entrepreneurs. China is now Africa's third-biggest trading partner; in the first 10 months of 2007, trade between China and the continent soared by more than 30 percent to US$58.7 billion.
The Chinese presence in Lesotho is not a new phenomenon. For more than a decade, immigrants from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have fuelled Lesotho's economy, as apparel manufacturers from Asia were drawn by tax incentives and rent discounts to attract foreign direct investment.
Today these textile factories are the country's biggest employers, providing more than 40,000 jobs, according to the country's Ministry of Trade and Industry.
But the people who came to run these factories have in turn sponsored family members to come to Lesotho, where an estimated 5,000 Chinese now live. Many have set up general stores stocked with low-cost, imported goods, even in the most remote rural villages of the mountain kingdom.
Backed by a formidable supply and distribution network with direct ties to China, these shops often squeeze out local retailers. So, while ethnic Chinese make up less than 0.5 percent of the country's population of 2 million, they have become the country's most successful business community.
That has made them an easy target for dissatisfied locals. A number of Lesotho's residents told IRIN that the main opposition party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), has been building a populist platform, partly by focusing on the success of Chinese immigrants.
Some say the ABC is accusing the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party of colluding with Chinese businesses. These comments are echoed on local radio stations, such as Harvest FM and People's Choice FM (PC FM).
Rioters target Chinese businesses
On 26 November 2007, in what was arguably the most public attack on the Chinese, local street vendors, angered by a municipal campaign to relocate them to a designated market place away from the city centre, went on a rampage in Maseru, targeting Chinese-owned businesses.
For years, Maseru's informal traders have set up shop in the heart of the capital, using makeshift stalls to sell everything from clothing to sweets and airtime for cellular phones. They city was brought to a standstill by the rally protesting the decision.
|We can't say that we expel the Chinese; we need them because they give us money. But it's our government that gets the money|
Many informal traders yelled anti-Chinese slogans and threw rocks at the windows of Chinese-owned internet cafes and stores because some of them had stayed open despite calls for businesses to shut their doors in solidarity with the vendors.
One local business owner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said local radio stations had fuelled the antagonism towards the Chinese. "The day of the demonstrations, Harvest FM and PC FM were saying: 'We cannot tolerate what government is doing. We have to defend ourselves. How can Chinese run their shops while we are turned out of our country?'"
No one was injured in the unrest, but riot police were called in to restore calm in the central business district, and resentment and tension are still simmering throughout the country.
"The government and opposition have to sit down to talk so they can solve this problem of the Chinese," said ABC member Letlapa Sehalahala, 24. He recently campaigned with other ABC members from a minivan equipped with loudspeakers in the village of Motsekuoa, about an hour south of Maseru.
"We can't say that we expel the Chinese; we need them because they give us money. But it's our government that gets the money," Sehalahala alleged.
This is not the first time immigrant traders have been singled out in Africa. In 1972, Ugandan president Idi Amin expelled 50,000 Asians, mostly Indians, who made up a sizeable portion of the country's traders. More recently, South African communities violently attacked and murdered dozens of Somali immigrants who had set up small shops, mostly in sprawling residential neighbourhoods. There were also a number of reports of anti-Chinese sentiment in Zambia, particularly during opposition leader Michael Sata's bid to unseat incumbent president Levy Mwanawasa in the 2006 presidential election.
Martyn Davies, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa, said that as China increased its presence across Africa, ethnic tensions would flare up when stoked for political ends.
"This is certainly a potential flashpoint, and it is certainly a risk for Chinese business and Chinese people in Africa," Davies said. "It's one which needs to be very carefully managed by African governments, and also perhaps through intervention or involvement by the Chinese government themselves."
Such government mediation hasn't happened yet in Lesotho. "As far as large industries are concerned, I'm not aware of any tensions," said Mabaedsi Matsamai, director of industry at Lesotho's Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Matsamai said the government would be quick to intervene if hostilities threatened the country's foreign investors. "We encourage foreign direct investment," said Matsamai. "We probably wouldn't have any investment if we were just saying, 'only local.'"
Local business leaders say the government should take a more active role in training Basotho entrepreneurs to compete as the global economy comes to their doorstep.
Photo: Gretchen Wilson/IRIN
|Chen Ke Hui, 39, is chair of the Chinese Business Association. He says tensions between Chinese and locals usually spring from the language barrier|
Thabang Mokatse, deputy president of the Lesotho Chamber of Commerce, said local business owners needed skills development to withstand the shocks when immigrants entered their markets. "If no steps are being taken, in no time the whole economy will be in the hands of the Chinese."
Chinese traders feel at home
Chinese retailers in Lesotho told IRIN they have no special relationship with government, and feel they are working to contribute to the country's economic growth.
"Some Basotho people think we take their business, but we think we help Lesotho grow as a country," said Chen Ke Hui, chairman of the Chinese Business Association of Lesotho. "We are not involved in politics, we are just doing business."
Chen has lived in Lesotho for 16 years, and by his own account has helped more than 100 of his family members relocate here from China's Fujian Province. In that time, he has become a leader among Lesotho's business elite.
He owns a handful of wholesale and retail shops, selling shoes, blankets and cooking pots - all imported from China. He has also become the biggest distributor of liquefied petroleum gas, the fuel many Basotho use to cook and heat their homes.
Chen said he has built deep relationships with his employees. "Lesotho is my second home. I work with Basotho people, I eat Basotho food, I speak the Sesotho language. We're very happy. We enjoy it here."
He said only a few Chinese businesses in Lesotho were affected by the demonstrations at the end of November, and that most hostilities were between locals, not Chinese, because "Many Chinese people don't know how to talk to Basotho, and this is a big problem."
Chen said he did not feel any hostility from local people. He is known by his employees by his Sesotho name, Thabiso, and is an honoured guest at their weddings and funerals. In fact, Chen and his family have given up their Chinese passports to become naturalised citizens of Lesotho.
But as long as widespread poverty persists in the country, some of their new compatriots will see the Chinese as competitors.