The politicisation of the public service

The politicisation of the public service

Continued from last week

Basotho’s Place in Colonial Bureaucracy

For much of the eight decades of imperial rule, 1884-1966, the category of public servants classified as ‘Officers’ was dominated by Europeans. Table I shows the number of ‘Basotho’, or ‘Africans’, or ‘locals’ who fell under category ‘Officers’ in the last seven years of colonial rule for which records could be found. In 1951 and 1955, this number stood at 2% and 5%, respectively, of the total number of public servants.

This is evidence that, in six-and-a-half decades between commencement of imperial rule and the early 1950s, Basotho were excluded from senior public service positions. The figures also suggest that, when it began, inclusion of Basotho into senior public positions grew rapidly, by almost 30% in five years from 1962 to 1967 — an average annual growth rate of close to 6%.
On the eve of independence and into the immediate post-independence era, a number of white South Africans were appointed to public service positions in Lesotho. These included A. G. Chaplin, who was senior enough to act as Resident Commissioner, when the substantive officer was away.

In the immediate post-independence era, the government of Chief Jonathan — the man who formed the first post-colonial government under his party, Basotho National Party — was criticised by many for keeping these people in the public service of independent Lesotho.
Critics included the king in his speeches attacking Chief Jonathan and his government for negotiating, agreeing, and ruling by, a constitution which was out-of-step with what, the king said, was Basotho pre-colonial distribution of power. In one such speech, at Ha Ramabanta, in December, 1966, the king described the public service as follows:

…many senior departments [sic] in the Government of Lesotho in Maseru are still under the control of followers of the British… There is a great increase in the number of foreigners who head departments of…Government…

Character of the Public Service Inherited from Colonial Rule

The next three sections are based, largely, on results of interviews conducted between December, 1995, and August, 2015, with retired public servants. In references to their testimonies, interviewees are referred to by their initials in order not to reveal their full identities.
By employing a few Basotho throughout the colonial period, albeit in junior positions, what the colonial government had done was to create a small class of Basotho who aspired to positions held by white colonial officials.

Perhaps more importantly, some of these people were imbued with some of the values of public service learnt from the conduct of white officials in carrying out day-to-day duties of their offices.
Some of these values were also inculcated through educational experiences, such as at the commercial course that many a public servant of the 1960s would have undergone at the Lerotholi Industrial School.

In some cases, the inculcation was so successful that, on their experience of British public service on their very first trip to England, some of these Basotho public servants are reported to have said that they felt they had come ‘home’.

Although in some quarters of society people such as these were treated with derision, and called names, such as ‘khooana-tšoana’, from a purely objective point of view, in their hands, perhaps, lay the hope of a creation of a political-party neutral public service that would serve governments regardless of which parties led them.
Indeed, there are former public servants whose service straddles colonial and post-colonial periods. One of them, AMC, recalled that, “politics was not allowed in public service. (In the colonial service), (a)nyone dabbling in politics stuck out like a sore thumb.”

Some, like him, imbibed this value, and continued to adhere to it as public servants, in the post-colonial period; many years after leaving public service, AMC still finds that “[a] person who works for the public and yet discriminating on political grounds perplexes me even now.”
One of the values of the colonial public service that those who experienced it remember was secrecy. It was mentioned by interviewees as one of the critical elements of any public service, and which the immediate post-independence public servants respected and adhered to:

…the confidentiality and the secrecy of government business must be maintained…and it was not a thing that we were taught…by being called into a class-room…no. You learnt it as you went on with your work….

Secrecy was kept not for purposes of merely keeping it; public servants who kept confidential matters, confidential, did so because they understood that, a public service worked best, and public servants’ ability to act with discretion was enhanced, when information that should be treated as confidential was treated accordingly.
In personnel management matters, public servants assigned the duty of handling information contained in personal files understood the danger that revealing such information posed to the proper functioning of the public service.

Thus, when other public servants pressed him for information contained in their files, whose keeping was entrusted to him, AMC refused, telling them, not merely that “I have been asked not to tell you…” but also because “… if I were to tell you, you might know matters that you are not supposed to know and that information might take you in the wrong direction….” in your daily work.
Even Chief Jonathan and some of his cabinet ministers recognised that, even though many in the public service they inherited were, or were suspected to be, members of opposition parties, they showed themselves prepared to work under a BNP-led government.

Thus, after he was appointed Minister of Education, in 1966, ACM found J. M. Mohapeloa as his Permanent Secretary. He knew that Mohapeloa was not a member of the BNP, almost certainly expected unfriendly reception from him and others he found in the Ministry, and tense working relations as they began to work together. However, he found that,

…on the whole, I worked with people who worked well. Civil servants, like Professor Mohapeloa, who were well-trained, and who knew what neutrality meant.

In the same manner, leaders of the ruling party’s Youth League at the time recognised that, among those who were suspected of not being, or were known not to be, supporters of the BNP, there were those “…who were working, e.g. Tom Thabane…he was one of the men who worked…when he was given work, he did it…” notwithstanding the fact that, his party political sympathies lay elsewhere.

For his part, when his Ministers began to put him under pressure to purge the public service of those who were, and those who were thought to be, members of, particularly, the BCP, Chief Jonathan is reported to have told his Ministers that:

You are saying that I hire Ma-Congress…you say that I should not hire Ma-Congress [and I should fire those of them who are in public service]…but Ma-Congress work! As for you, yours is just talking…you do not know work…You Ma-National, your thing is: just talking… You do not know work…These Ma-Congress work, and they know work…

One of the individuals often mentioned as an embodiment of the public servant that the British left in Lesotho was Letjea Qhobela. He is remembered by those who worked with, and under, him as a person who was not liked by many because they considered him “cruel”. He enhanced his ability to act with discretion because he had no friends and did not allow frivolous visits in his office:

…he had no friends. When he knocked off in the afternoon, you would not see him walking [home] with anybody…if he walked home with anybody it would be on those occasions when [his] missus might have happened to come to town, and then they would walk home together… he was like that [straight!] because he did not go about welcoming people [in his office] so that they could come and trick him…that man was straight! He understood Public Service Regulations, and he was the only one who knew how to interpret them and to apply them (fairly)…

Thus, there are some indications that, as they prepared to leave, the British had created rudiments of a political-party neutral public service that would work with governments led by any party; a public service that would offer careers and, thereby, create a body of public servants who would accumulate knowledge and experience, and act as a source of non-partisan counsel to governments led by different political parties.
Significantly, asked what he had liked about the public service during the colonial and immediate post-colonial eras, AMC said: “I’ll use just use one word, whatever it means: stability”. Asked what, in his view, brought instability in the public service and made it, in turn, an instrument of political instability in the country, he said: “It became politicised, that’s all.”

Experiences of the Bureaucracy in the Post-colonial era

From the immediate post-colonial era, a general feeling, and source of a lot of resentment, among members of the ruling BNP in cabinet, the party’s Youth League and other sections of the party, was that, the public service they inherited from colonial government was made of individuals and groups who were predominantly protestant — as opposed to Roman Catholic — and predominantly pro-BCP. Because of the tensions that existed between king Moshoeshoe II and Chief Jonathan over distribution of power in independent Lesotho, Chief Jonathan and his Ministers identified some public servants as the king’s supporters.

It is this — and not the Prime Minister and some of his Ministers’ recognition and praise of the abilities and non-partisanship of those they found in the public service — that went a long way to shape attitudes of leaders of the ruling party towards the public service in years following attainment of independence, in 1966.
In some ways, members of the BNP felt that, in appointing people to public service jobs, the colonial government had discriminated against members of the Roman Catholic Church and members of the BNP.

PMJR spoke of how he had once overheard one British senior colonial official describe some public servants as “…bloody Catholics”.
PMJR was convinced that this was not an isolated case but an attitude of, at least, the higher echelons of the colonial service, and that it explained the numerical minority status of members of the Roman Catholic Church in the public service.

ACM, also, blamed the British for the fact that, at least, the sympathies of individuals he and his colleagues found occupying senior positions in their Ministries lay with other parties:

At the Ministry [of Education, where I was appointed as Minister], I found Mr J. M. Mohapeloa, who had been Director of Education in the out-going Colonial Administration… You had a sense that people like him had been trained (by the British colonial administration) to take over the running of Ministries at independence, but somehow things had not worked out that way (i.e. the BNP, not the BCP, had won elections and formed government, contrary to British colonial officials’ wishes and plans)…

An additional source of tensions and resentment was that, it seemed to Ministers, such as ACM, that, BNP Ministers had no “authority”, and, instead, powers to run the Ministries were in the hands of these non-BNP people who, the British had hoped, would run things after independence.

The programme of leaders of the ruling BNP to clear all confusion over ‘just what the minister’s job was’, seems to have started in earnest immediately they came to power, probably in 1965. The programme, mainly, consisted of ministers establishing firm control of governmental power at the expense of public servants, Chief Accounting Officers.

The king’s description of the situation regarding personnel in the public service, in 1966, included criticism, against the government, that, there were “…Basotho who [could] perform duties…” that the government continued to entrust to foreigners. Further, that,

…Basotho who are on the point of assuming control of these departments are being gradually removed from their posts… There is a great increase in the number of foreigners who head departments of a Government which is supposed to be that of…independent Lesotho…

In this, there was a strong hint that, the government had executed, and were executing, a plan intended to exclude Basotho from senior public service positions, and from heading government departments.

If, as evidence suggests above, the Prime Minister opposed removal of persons he considered knowledgeable and hard-working, regardless of the fact that they did not belong to the ruling party, it is arguable that he was amenable to persuasion concerning strategic positions, or positions regarded as such.
Accordingly, fairly early after independence, by 1967, the position of Chief Establishment Officer — hub of public service’s human resources management function, including recruitment, promotion, training, and firing — had already been given to A. S. Mohale, “…who had never done that job before…”; his only qualification for the job being that “…of course, he was in the right [political party]…”

On the other side, BNP government found ways of removing persons considered undesirable from strategic positions. One of these ways was abolition of positions. Victims of this included Benjamin Masilo, whose position of ‘Senior Executive Officer’ at the National Assembly was abolished, in 1968, “…in order”, the government said, “to facilitate organisation of his department”. This meant that, his employment as a public servant had to be terminated.

In other sectors of the public service, especially after Chief Jonathan’s undemocratic seizure of power, in 1970, officials openly admitted that public servants were dismissed because of their perceived and real political persuasions. Thus, in the police force, the Commissioner of Police indicated, in his Report for 1971, that “a considerable number of officers were dismissed…from the force”, in 1970, for “sympathising with and assisting the opposition.”

Many cases of open and disguised politically-motivated removal of public servants from their positions generated a lot of litigation in which those who lost their jobs challenged government’s decision in the courts of law.

Perhaps, the most high-profiled victim of the abolition of public service positions was Clement Mooki Leepa an Assistant Commissioner of Police and an ‘obvious’ successor of the last white Commissioner of Police. As an Assistant Commissioner of Police, in late December, 1966, Leepa had shown loyalty to the government led by BNP by brutally suppressing king Moshoeshoe II’s attempts to hold a pitso at Thaba Bosiu against written prohibition by Chief Jonathan’s government.
Less than three years later, in 1969, the government abolished Leepa’s position on grounds, never openly admitted, that he was the king’s supporter.

Party-politicisation of the State Security Apparatus

As seen above, the Basutoland Mounted Police force was one of the first public service institutions to be established, in 1872. What later became Lesotho’s army grew out of the police force. In preparation for pre-independence elections, in 1964, the colonial government established a small mobile unit of the police.

Unlike the rest of the police, this unit used Land Rovers, and not horses, and came to be known as a Police ‘Mobile’ (as opposed ‘Mounted’), Unit, the PMU. Over the years, the PMU grew in size and importance to Chief Jonathan’s regime. It underwent changes from being a unit of the police to being a paramilitary force, in 1979, to being an army, in 1982.

As it grew in the 1970s and 1980s, the army provided a unique opportunity for party-politicisation, as a section of the public service: unlike the civil service and the police force, the ruling party was starting the army from scratch.
It is remarkable that, those who wanted to seize power in Lesotho after independence —Mokhehle, the king and Chief Jonathan —held a largely similar view on the centrality of control over the police.
The issue, whether the police should be under the king’s control or elected politicians after independence, was a bone of contention during negotiations for Lesotho’s independence; leaders of different political parties flip-flopped depending on their prospect for winning the elections leading to independence.

BY; Motlatsi Thabane

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