Mafisa: bossing the bosses

Mafisa: bossing the bosses

Abel Chapatarongo

MASERU – WHEN tempers boiled over after the 1998 general election, Sekara Mafisa was caught in the eye of a major political storm.

Lesotho’s opposition parties accused Mafisa of massaging the election result in favour of the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party led by Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.

Having rejected the results, the opposition supporters went on the rampage burning buildings in the capital Maseru.

The violent protests were only contained after the regional bloc SADC sent in a crack intervention force.

Mafisa, who led the newly established Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), says charges he had rigged the election were totally false.

He argues that all politicians are squeaky wheels – they all complain they have been cheated after every electoral loss.

“Nobody, not even to this day, has provided proof that the elections were rigged,” he says.

Mafisa says the IEC which he led together with two other commissioners had to amend the electoral law “to allow the ballot boxes to be opened so the protesting political parties could see for themselves”.

“When the ballot boxes were finally opened, nothing was found amiss. No one came up with anything (to back up allegations of irregularities),” he says.

Even when a South African judge, Justice Pius Langa, was brought in to investigate allegations of ballot stuffing, nothing irregular was found, Mafisa says.

“They did a recount and nothing was found. There was no way one could have rigged those elections. The counting was done at the polling stations. The boxes were not moved until the counting was done and signed for by both the IEC staff and party agents at each polling station.”

Mafisa says none of the aggrieved politicians provided any evidence that the election had been rigged.

He says it is unfortunate that politicians in Lesotho are so quick to lay the blame for their electoral loss on the IEC just “to save face”.

That habit has largely contributed to the constant friction between politicians and the electoral management authority.

“They cannot admit to their supporters that they have lost because they will skin you alive,” he says.

So to deal with that challenge, Mafisa says politicians are in the habit of concocting long tales about rigging.

“It is not a nice thing to lose elections when you have supporters who would have placed their trust in you.

“So when you do not achieve your objective of winning an election, you have to give them some kind of explanation and they end up blaming the IEC,” he says.

Mafisa says while politicians might scream about election rigging, the system used in Lesotho is so water-tight as to not allow wholesale cheating.

While there is no election without irregularities, the irregularities were not so significant as to tilt the electoral outcome, he argues.

“If they complain that they were cheated in 1998, were they also cheated in 2006,” Mafisa asks.

“It’s a story that cannot stick. Nobody has come up with proof that the elections were rigged.”

He argues the culture of blaming election administrators after every election “comes out of frustration”.

Mafisa says failure at the polls “denies them an opportunity to go to Parliament to earn a living and when that chance is not realised people become frustrated”.

To deal with the frustrations Mafisa says his IEC recommended total Proportional representation model, a new electoral model that would allow “a sharing of the cake” after the 1998 election dispute.

The new electoral model was an effort to “accommodate people” who would otherwise remain on the periphery of the electoral system.

Mafisa says the winner-takes-all first-past-the-post electoral model had proven inadequate for Lesotho because it meant that if you are beaten by a single vote you gained nothing from the electoral contest.

“It would be as if you were never in the race with the votes cast in your favour going down the drain. The new electoral model sought to correct that anomaly,” he says.

Mafisa says because of the Mixed Member Proportional representation model which came as an improvement on the IEC’s total PR model, “noise” about who gets what after elections has almost died.

“Even small parties can now go into Parliament; the model has provided a cushion so that they don’t fall hard on the ground.”

Mafisa says he joined the IEC in 1997 during what proved to be a difficult phase in the history of administering elections in Lesotho. Prior to 1997 elections were managed and run by the Chief Electoral Officer, a government appointee.

But to align itself with new global trends, Lesotho set up the IEC which was to be owned by stakeholders who were going to have a say in the selection of office bearers of the organisation.

When the IEC was set up, Mafisa says they only had less than a year to prepare for the 1998 elections, no easy task for men who had no experience in running elections.

“There were huge challenges. We had to register voters, set up the database and compile a fresh voters’ register. We also had to demarcate the boundaries afresh as the constituencies were increased from 65 to 80,” he says.

“None of us had any experience in running elections. We had to conduct voter education but at the same time we were also learning. It was just work, work and more work.”

Since charges that charges the election was marked by irregularities, have never been substantiated Mafisa says he remains proud of their work as IEC commissioners during the 1998 election.

“We gave life and shape to an institution called the IEC. We set it up (from scratch),” he says.

“Despite the accusations (of rigging) we produced an election that was proclaimed free and fair by the international community. We survived that storm and only a fool can still make that accusation that the election was rigged.”

Mafisa says “no one has had to deliver an election under as difficult a circumstance as ourselves” because we had no one to learn from.

New commissioners at the IEC can only improve on what his IEC did in the past, he argues.

Mafisa says to deal with the rampant culture of election disputes, we as Basotho “need to grow up and change our mindset and embrace democracy in earnest”.

“We have politicians who want to place wrongdoing where it does not belong even where there is no wrongdoing merely to save their face. We need true leadership that will appreciate the kind of game politics is.”

“Politicians must learn to accept electoral outcomes and play the game by its rules. We need maturity to accept defeat when beaten.”

Unless we change our mindset, Lesotho will continue to be dogged by election disputes in the foreseeable future, he says.

Mafisa was born on May 24, 1949 to parents who were peasant farmers in Matsoku in Leribe. Life in the village was tough for the young Mafisa to the extent he had to seek work as a shepherd when he was still a boy.

There was no monetary reward for his services. After 12 months, his employer would give him a sheep or two as payment.

But in the event he failed to serve the entire 12-month period, he would get nothing as punishment for flouting the contract terms.

“It was a very tough upbringing,” he says.

Because the family was poor, Mafisa only enrolled for Standard One when he was around 17 in the early 1960s.

Mafisa speaks fondly of his mother who went out of her way to bring him up to the required level for him to begin school in Standard One.

“She taught me to read and write and drove me in the direction she wanted. Those were very rigorous sessions,” he says.

By the time he got to Form One, Mafisa was so much in love with school that he vowed nothing would stand in his way.

When his parents could not find money for his school fees, the young Mafisa joined hordes of other youths in digging diamonds at Kao mine in Butha-Buthe.

“I wanted to sell the diamonds to raise money for school fees but we weren’t that lucky.”

Mafisa says he then approached a Catholic nun who was teaching at Pitseng Secondary School to be allowed to work in the school gardens to raise fees, a request which was granted.

He says a Canadian nun, Sister Lorraine, then offered to pay for his school fees and buy his uniform because she thought the young Mafisa had “good brains” that should not go to waste.

He says his passion in law was sparked after he saw one of Lesotho’s early lawyers, Charles Dube Molapo in action at the magistrate’s court in Leribe.

Molapo’s forceful and eloquent arguments in court planted within the young Mafisa a liking for the legal profession.

“When I saw him in action, I took a liking for the practice of law. The way he was arguing, I pictured myself in that position.”

But not everyone was impressed with his choice of a career. Even his closest friends tried to discourage him saying as a devout Catholic he should stay away from a profession “that teaches you to tell lies”.

However, he received backing from an unlikely source. His benefactor, the nun who had paid for his fees, endorsed his choice and so in 1974, Mafisa enrolled for his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

He completed his studies in 1979.

In 1979, Mafisa worked as a prosecutor before joining the Law Office as a government lawyer.

He says it was a period of turbulence politically with scores of Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) cadres who were fighting to topple the government being arrested and tortured in custody.

“There were lots of cases of police torture with so many claims being filed against the government. In the heart of my heart, the job was not very pleasing.”

Mafisa worked in the Law office until 1985 when he joined the Central Bank of Lesotho. In February 1988, he resigned from the Central Bank to enter private practice when he opened S S Mafisa and Company, his one-man law firm.

He practiced as a lawyer until 1997 when he joined the IEC.

Mafisa also served as the Ombudsman between 2002 and 2010.

“I caused ripples at the office of the Ombudsman,” Mafisa says referring to bitter clashes between the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and villagers who had been affected by the project.

“I think I did so much for the rights of ordinary people who had nowhere to run,” he says.

He also says he is proud of the role he played in improving the conditions of Lesotho’s prisons after he penned stinging reports on the state of the country’s prisons.

He is currently serving as one of the Public Service Commissioners, tasked with hiring civil servants.

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