A giant of Lesotho politics

A giant of Lesotho politics

LIKHOELE – ’MATHABISO Lepono might be retired as a politician, but she strongly believes she knows what it takes to turn the country onto the path of political stability.
Her solution to the serious polarisation affecting Lesotho is the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU). It is probably a hard sell given the intensity of the political divisions among the country’s leading political parties.

For Lepono, a former Sports Minister and MP for Likhoele constituency under the ticket of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), practising politicians should swallow their pride and join hands for the sake of their Motherland.
“I believe it will put a gentle stop to the political fights we see today,” Lepono says, speaking from her home in Ha-Ramokoatsi in Mafeteng.
“I may not have all the details to the disadvantages of a GNU but I am certain it is the right remedy to the current situation if we want to move forward,” she tells thepost.
Lepono dumped the LCD with Pakalitha Mosisili in 2012 to form the Democratic Congress (DC) before announcing her retirement from active politics.

Her idea of a GNU is not quite novel in local politics, having been floated by other politicians before. The difference is that Lepono’s call is not to save her own skin, as is often the case with politicians who call for the formation of a GNU after losing elections or as a way to get into government.
Current Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki touted the formation of a GNU as a panacea to the country’s political instability when he defected from the DC in 2017 to form the Alliance of Democrats (AD).
At that time Moleleki’s opponents in government, Mosisili and his then Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, scoffed at the idea.

Later Metsing, leader of the LCD, called for a GNU after losing elections to the current quartet coalition government.
All the leaders who advocated for a GNU did not talk about its disadvantages in public and did not discuss its advantages at length.
Some analysts note that while a GNU is often good to heal a country undergoing political turmoil, such an arrangement has its own fair share of problems.
Anthony Bell, a research associate with the International Security Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, has serious reservations about a GNU.
Bell published his findings in the Defence 360°, a US Defence publication, under the series: Bad ideas in national security.
In his studies Bell says over the last decade, the United States has helped broker the formation of national unity governments in conflict-ridden states including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, and elsewhere.
He says these power-sharing arrangements, however, have rarely panned out the way Washington had hoped.
“Instead of opponents setting aside their differences for the greater good, political rivalries are carried into the new government,” Bell says.

“Dysfunction ensues. Internal divisions deepen. For the United States, already weak partner governments become even weaker and less capable of standing on their own,” he says.
He says GNUs have a poor track record of success and carry serious downsides that policymakers often overlook.
“Nevertheless, they have assumed a place at the top of Washington’s playbook for staving off crises and consolidating democracy in fragile states.”
He criticised the Trump administration for calling for a national unity government in Kenya to resolve its post-election standoff.

“This is a bad idea that needs to be re-examined.”
Lepono concedes that she has not read much about the disadvantages of GNUs.
She also suggests that MPs should not be appointed to Cabinet, which should be a preserve of experts.
“One other solution is to have parliamentarians as parliamentarians not as ministers. Ministers should be people of expertise, people who have the right skills and knowledge in a field,” she says.
“We cannot just have every Jack and Jill as a minister. This is why parliamentarians are fighting. They are fighting for ministerial positions,” she says.

Lepono says the Senate should be a house for principal chiefs only, and should exclude the other 11 elected individuals into senate appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister.
She says such appointments “just increase political differences”.
“If a chief wants to become a politician they must renounce chieftainship and join politics fully,” she says.
“You cannot serve two masters.”

Although Lepono is known for speaking forcefully when addressing political rallies, she is also known for crying when things do not go according to her expectations.
There is a sad reason for these fragile emotions.

Born in 1942 in Thibella, Maseru, she grew up like an orphan in South Africa moving from one relative to another from Klerksdorp in the North-West province to Orlando East in Johannesburg.
Lepono recalls lots of hardships and abuses that still break her heart when she narrates her life story, although the experiences moulded her into the strong woman she is today.
“I didn’t have a smooth journey growing up. I had four surnames to my name because at the time of apartheid domestic workers were not allowed to stay with their children,” she says.

“My mother could not take care of me and I had to be cared for by relatives.”
Her surnames were Mphahama, Mokotso, Sefako (mother’s surname), Seloane (father’s surname) and Ntsane.
One particular surname brings back some of her saddest memories. She narrates the trauma of abuse she faced being fostered at a home where she adopted the surname Mokotso.
She sheds tears and her voice shakes as she tells the story.

“I have never been beaten and treated this maliciously in my life. My aunt would beat me to a pulp as a child, they would beat me black and blue with her husband and everyone in that house,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes.
“Sometimes I would hide under the bed and even fall asleep there only to be woken up by either her or her husband poking me with a broom stick,” recalls Lepono, adding the experiences have contributed to her oft-times fragile state.
“I am a cry baby. I cry easily today because I have not stopped being emotional. I cried every day of my life in that house,” she says.

Lepono survived it all, and for these reasons she says “I survived the abuse, the Lord protected me and to show my gratitude I wanted nothing more than to serve his people”.
Lepono attended school at Blessed Martin de Poress in South Africa.
She had completed her Standard Six when she returned to Lesotho with her mother before working as an office assistant at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital’s department of statistics under Clifford Morojele and the World Health Organisation.

She taught herself how to use a typewriter and Morojele together with a WHO supervisor, astonished at her passion for learning new things, enrolled her at St Stephen’s High School in Mohale’s Hoek for secondary education.
When the WHO supervisor left the following year there was nobody to pay her school fees so she stayed at home.
A kind Mrs Peterson who was her teacher paid for her the following year until she completed Junior Certificate.
“I was then employed at Mohlomi as a cleaner. It had just been launched as the new mental health institution. I was promoted to position of clerk working with a psychiatrist who advised that I should go study mental nursing” Lepono says.

In 1966, she was offered a scholarship to study overseas but she had a very difficult decision to make – school or marriage.
She chose marriage.
“I could not chase two rabbits, I had to choose one rabbit to chase after and that was Ntate Lepono,” she says with a laugh.
Her husband allowed her go to school at Lerotholi Polytechnic but she could not complete her studies because of financial constraints.

Lepono joined politics while a student at St Stephens High Schools as a Basutoland African Congress (BAC) youth member.
“I loved politics,” she says.
“I was very ambitious. I told a friend of mine at the time that my future looked bright, that I would not die without having boarded a plane.”
The political instability experienced today, according to Lepono, is due to power hungry politicians.
“Everyone wants to be in power”.
“The hatred brewed up because of party differences is uncalled for,” she says, adding: “We cannot all follow one party just as we don’t have the same names and families.”

“Politics is not a power field, it is a model of connecting the needs of the people and answering to social justice issues.”
She bemoans today’s politicians for putting their family and personal interests ahead of national interests.
“Everyone in Parliament wants to make more money for themselves and not create a habitable country for Basotho.”
“They play God when they get into parliament, untouchable because they personify constituencies. Politics is fun. It has been fouled by people who have personal agendas and selfish ambitions. They even kill,” she says.
She recalls her own experiences when she queried why she had been appointed a minister for a portfolio she had little understanding of.

That was in 2002 under the Mosisili-led LCD administration.
“I told Mosisili that I did not have the right qualifications, nor did I have sufficient knowledge to become a minister,” she says.
“He told me that in government, ministers work as a team and they would help me throughout the experience.”
She soon asked to be reshuffled to the Ministry of Gender, Sports and Recreation “because the Ministry of Environment was too technical for me”.
“I had thought environment was about the air we have, cleaning the environment, but it is deeper than that,” Lepono says.
She counts numerous successes at the new ministry.
“I cannot even remember them all, they are just too may,” she says, pulling out a paper that has a few records of some of her achievements
She counts the Gender Policy, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act 2006 as some of her achievements.

“This was to remove the minority status of a woman. We wanted to see women become independent, be able to get loans, buy land and be a director,” she says.
“It was in 2006 going into the 2007 elections and I was sceptical about this Act. I felt that men (who were the majority in parliament) would feel threatened by the Bill but Mosisili insisted I table it in Parliament.”
She also established the Lesotho Sports and Recreation Commission (LSRC) in place of the Sports Council and the Youth Council.

“I also planned to establish an apex body for women but it failed because some women believed that this body would be a gateway for me to politicise and win women into the LCD, which was not true”.
The Centre for Survivors of Domestic Violence called Lapeng Care Centre, which is a refugee centre for women who are victims of domestic violence, was also established during her tenure as minister.
Rapokolane High Altitude Training Centre, which has turned into a white elephant, was also established during her time.

Lepono says because of the outcry of the nation on the poor performance of the national football team, Likuena, she decided the government should hire a foreign coach, Tony Hey.
“Basotho were not content because they did not understand how professional coaches work. There was improvement, but it was unrecognised because people were looking for a win and not football development and so we had to let him go,” she says, reminiscing on her eventful political career.

Rose Moremoholo

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