Of Culture and Cash: Asian big business in Lesotho

By Sebabatso Manoeli

Perhaps it will be personal interactions, not just policies, which will shape the future of Afro-Asian affairs – for better or for worse.

Interactions between Chinese and Basotho

Interactions between Chinese and Basotho

The ubiquitous Chinese presence in countries like Lesotho signifies a shift in direction for African business.  This shift is particularly apparent on the factory-floors of Lesotho’s garment industry.  Even though the country is America’s largest apparel exporter in sub-Saharan Africa; ironically, the local Basotho do not own the country’s most successful industry … the Chinese do.

Until now, the main way in which the ‘China in Africa’ phenomenon has been analysed has been through the prism of states. Scholars typically understand Beijing as the dominant force leading the Chinese engagement with Africa. While the state does play a substantial role, as evidenced by the infrastructure-for-resources deals for which the People’s Republic of China has become notorious, other faces are unveiled when we look at remote places such as Lesotho.[1]

An often overlooked dimension of this dynamic relationship is that of large privately-owned Asian enterprises operating in African countries. These large-scale companies, typically employing hundreds if not thousands of locals, present a revealing platform from which to observe the interpersonal aspects of international business relations.

Inside Lesotho's apparel industry.

Inside Lesotho’s apparel industry.

In these factories, it is not uncommon for  Chinese managers to use racial slurs such as “lazy” and “simpleminded” to describe locals, who they consider to be less efficient than workers in the same industry in Asia.

A Chinese factory manager in Lesotho attempted to justify these depictions by explaining that locals have tended to specialize in simple patterns because once a new style is introduced, production lead-time increases by a week, on average. In such a competitive and cutthroat industry, these multinational companies often choose to produce more complex designs in other countries, mostly in Asia.

This is because the garment industry in African countries does not invest in the development and upskilling of workers, and they subsequently do not acquire the skills needed to be flexible enough to manufacture for a wider range of markets. An investment in workers by local governments could position their countries to maximize the impact of already favourable trade quotas and thus reap greater economic rewards.

A Mosotho textile manager explained that clashes between locals and Chinese managers arise principally from a lack of cross-cultural understanding due to differing approaches to authority and work. Whereas Lesotho’s budding democratic system seems to have promoted an ethos of freedom of speech, “a Chinese who comes from communist China where you take instructions”, he continued, can easily “misinterpret” the interactions with local staff. In the hierarchy of power on the factory-floor, “it creates a clash. The Chinese get furious and the Mosotho is puzzled, thinking, “What have I done wrong?””

One wonders how costly these cultural clashes have been to both foreign companies and the national economy.

Packaging apparel goods for export

Packaging apparel goods for export

On the other hand, a Chinese textile entrepreneur argued that the Chinese are also often mischaracterised by both Africans and the West. While sweatshop conditions are clearly unacceptable, even in Asian-owned factories that meet international labour standards, there seems to be a difference in attitudes towards work.

“When the West looks at the Chinese factory – and Basotho too because they were colonized into the same thinking – the Western people want more rest, they want to enjoy life. In China, we work like dogs.  Our production runs 24-hours a day – and requires an enormous amount of dedication… there is a lot of pressure.”

This highlights the differences between the famed Asian work ethic, which  is intensified by both the immigrant experience and being an owner concerned with profit-making, and the work ethic of wage-earning locals who have an altogether different relationship to production. Indeed, Basotho employed in the textile industry often describe their work in the factories as servitude. Although sweatshop conditions have been largely eliminated, the meagre salaries and poor treatment clearly fuel worker discontent.

Workers sewing garments in a garment factory

Workers sewing garments in a garment factory

It is important to note that despite the dominant Chinese influence in these companies, their management is often multi-ethnic in composition. In any large textile firm in Lesotho, Chinese and Taiwanese managers are typically assisted by Indian and Filipino managerial staff. Interestingly, in spite of  tensions between the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), in business, citizens of the two seem perfectly able to accommodate one another.

When the textile industry took off in Lesotho in the mid-1980s, there was a significant wealth disparity between China and Taiwan. The Chinese commonly had less capital and were less experienced than the Taiwanese; hence the preponderance of Taiwanese ownership of the textile industry in Lesotho. These Taiwanese managers often recruited their middle management from mainland China, though the past twelve years have seen an increase in the number of mainland  textile firms in Lesotho concurrent with the rapid economic development of the Chinese mainland.

Locals and Asian foreigners have hitherto had a strained relationship. In crude terms, locals generally perceive the Chinese in big business as “good” Chinese, while the small traders are considered “bad” Chinese. Those in the textile industry are seen to be offering employment while those in the retail sector are blamed for introducing unfair competition into the market and therefore taking local jobs.

Clearly, this simplistic perspective does not do justice to what is, in reality, a complex relationship.

A manager patrols in a garment factory

A manager patrols in a garment factory

Regardless of this complexity, it is clear that African and Asian destinies are becoming increasingly intertwined. There must be an effort to make the relationship work. In this sense, Lesotho’s peculiar relationship with the apparel industry offers a window into some of the challenges and opportunities involved in this relationship.

Training workers and increasing local ownership of the textile industry could allow Basotho and foreigners to operate on  equal footing – thereby minimizing opportunities for prejudice and culture clashes. In addition, national development agencies could craft and implement a framework for sustainable multi-cultural business relations, to be made available across the socio-economic spectrum, for both foreigners and locals alike. In addition to preventing tensions, this would be a proactive means to encourage synergies between Lesotho and its foreign partners.

Making diversity work in Africa’s increasingly international workplaces will be key to optimizing the socio-economic potential of closer Afro-Asian relations.

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –

About the author:

Sebabatso Manoeli researches African histories and politics. She is a 2012 Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University reading for an MSc in African Studies. While working as the Machel-Mandela Intern at the Brenthurst Foundation, Sebabatso’s research focused on Lesotho’s textile industry. Previously, she studied at Amherst College as a Mandela Scholar.

COVER IMAGE: Inside a Chinese-owned garment factory


[1] One example is that of Chinese small traders in Africa (which Terence McNamee has covered extensively in a pioneering study, Africa in their Words: A Study of Chinese Traders in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Angola (2012)).

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5 responses to “Of Culture and Cash: Asian big business in Lesotho

  1. As somebody working in compliance issues, we often come across issues where Basotho claim to have been verbally harassed by the Chinese supervisors when in actual fact when you dig dipper into the issue it turns out to be just due to cultural differences. This goes to show how bid this issue can be!

  2. Lumela motsoalle!
    Thanks for the informative article. Do you know anything about how the Chinese in the textile plants are helping with the fight against AIDS? I know that their participation was prompted by the high levels of absenteeism in their factories due to chronic illness of their Basotho workers.
    I’d appreciate any info on this.

    Kea leboha,

    Dan Bosko (lived/researched in Lesotho between 1977 and 1979)

    • Hi Dan,

      My apologies for what has been a shamefully slow response! I know that certain Chinese textile factories participate in the ALAFA (Apparel Lesotho Alliance Fighting Aids) scheme. You can find out more here: http://alafa.info/

      The situation you describe sounds about right. It’s a very sad situation.

      All the best,

      Mothusi

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