Where conflicts are solved through violence

Where conflicts are solved through violence

MAFETENG – In another place, were soldiers to seize a group of villagers, beat them up and for good measure make them roll in the mud it would spark such an uproar that the government would have little option but to dismiss and prosecute the servicemen.
But that’s in another place; not in Mafeteng district and not when the said villagers are the rough and aggressive cattle herders who virtually terrorise the local communities, grazing their animals in reserved pastureland or on other people’s plots and resorting to violence when told to move.

Here in Mafeteng Thaba-Tšoeu Ha-Mafa, 75 kilometres south of Maseru you can bet your last penny that many of the villagers probably believe the soldiers deserved medals and not criticism for meting out instant justice on the rogue herd boys two weeks ago.
The soldiers’ alleged conduct is clearly illegal. But it is not hard to understand the attitudes of the local community or indeed any Mosotho familiar with bullyboy tactics of the livestock keepers who are virtually a law unto themselves in these parts of the country, defying elders, chiefs or anybody else, which in fact is what happened before the military got involved.

According to local ‘Chief ’Mamojalefa Mahao, the herd boys without seeking permission from her or anybody else drove their cattle into a reserved area. When told to move their animals out of the area they would not budge.
Then help was sought from the soldiers who — if you were in Chief Mahao and his people’s place — did not disappoint.
It was in the morning on a Thursday when the soldiers in a white van stormed the place unannounced.
Some of the herd boys managed to escape but those who were slow to react were left to face the music, according to those who witnessed the incident and spoke to thepost about it this week.
The herd boys were ordered to roll on the ground several times while being kicked all over their bodies, one witness said.
The soldiers seized the animals and handed them over to the chief for safe-keeping.

According to Mahao, who neither condemned nor approved of the soldiers’ violent methods, the army men only came to help her remove the herd boys from the reserved area. It worked. But never think that is the end of the chief and her people’s troubles with the cattle herders.
For the events of a fortnight ago are an illustration of a sad situation that has been allowed to fester on in Mafeteng, with the herd boys a constant source of violence and conflict, which often sees the police and other state agents having to use forceful methods to restore order.
It is an unhealthy situation that human rights activists say cannot be allowed to go on unchecked.
Seabata Motsamai, the Executive Director of Lesotho Council for Non-Governmental Organisations, called for action to ensure peace in Mafeteng. But he was quick to point out that whatever the police or the army do has to be within the law.

It is illegal to beat up people or torture them in the name of trying to bring peace and order to a community, said Motsamai.
The state security forces are trained to defend citicens’ rights and should only use minimal force to subdue suspects, he added.
Transformation Resource Centre human rights officer, ’Masenono Letsie, said the police and the army were there to uphold the law and not to break it. Using violence and other illegal methods against the Mafeteng herd boys would not achieve lasting peace in the area, she said.

Well, it remains to be seen whether the government will heed the calls by rights campaigners’ for a lawful and permanent solution to the grazing land violence in Mafeteng and other such areas.
But until something is done the situation in Mafeteng remains as famo maestro Mahlanya captures it so well in one of his songs. Makaoteng ntoa ke lelomolo, he sang. Loosely translated it means, in Mafeteng fighting is a custom.
The conflict can happen any time the herd boys feel like they want to misbehave or to bully those around them. Often the fights started by herd-boys end up involving the larger communities from where the boys come.
For some reason the conflicts tend to pick up around the Easter and Christmas holidays, when the grass is green because of the summer rains.

The police and other government security agencies are usually on high alert to prevent or quell such conflicts but often they arrive too late when property has been destroyed or people even killed.
The fighting gangs often use dangerous weapons including guns against each other, which explains the fatalities recorded in some of the fights. And of course, the guns are illegally obtained.
Usually it is the men and boys who sometimes get killed in these fights over pastureland that according to oral history have occurred in this district since time immemorial.
When local chiefs try to intervene to stop the fighting they are threatened with death and in some instances, some have been killed.
There are no official statistics of the people who have died because of the conflict over pastureland but anecdotal evidence suggests the toll is rising.

Police spokesman Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli described conflict and violence over grazing land as a national concern.
To try to curb the fighting, the police regularly hold meetings with communities to encourage them not to resort to violence when in disagreement over pastures, according to Mopeli.
Traditional leaders say they have also been doing their bit to try to encourage their communities to co-exist peacefully.

“We try to sit down as chiefs to solve the problems and now things seem to be better,” said Chief Thabo Lerotholi of Lekhalong Ha-Raletooane, an area in Mafeteng.
A preferred method of Chief Lerotholi to punish those that want to graze their cattle on other people’s land is to impound the animals and impose steep fines for their release.
He however concedes this has sometimes proved counterproductive with some of the herd boys resorting to violence to prevent their animals being impounded. In such cases Chief Lerotholi has relied on the police to help control the herd boys.

But in some cases, conflict arises because it is the chiefs themselves or their headmen that are in disagreement over which pastureland belongs to who.
Take for example the communities of Ha-Sekhonyana and Helehele Ha-Mokoenehi in Thabana-Morena, they all fall under one principal chief but do not see eye-to-eye because they cannot agree on who owns the land where they both live.
Chief Sekhonyana Leluma of Ha-Sekhonyana says his parents were the first to reside in the area. He claims that the parents of the Ha-Mokoenehi chief arrived in the area at a later date and because of that fact they do not have legitimate claim to the land.
Needless to say Leluma’s claims make for a time bomb waiting to explode one day because the Ha-Mokoenehi people will never accept the status of second-class citizens in an area they have called home for as long as they can remember.

In fact, things almost came to a head a few weeks ago when cattle from the Ha-Sekhonyana side of the area strayed over to the Ha-Mokoenehi lands.
Police had to fire warning shots to separate the two rival groups of herd boys that were determined to tear each other apart.
The Ha-Sekhonyana cattle were later impounded and the owners fined M50 for each animal to be released, which in itself has created more cause for tension, with Leluma saying the fines were too exorbitant.
“A farmer was fined M50 for each cow despite the fact that the normal fine is M5,” the chief said. He said they have opened a case with the local court to have the matter reviewed.

It might be that the court will be able to resolve the matter in a way that is satisfactory to both the Ha-Sekhonyana and Helehele Ha-Mokoenehi people.
But whatever the outcome of the court case one thing is quite clear – it is not the courts, impounding of cattle and fines or the violence of the soldiers that shall bring lasting peace to Mafeteng.
It is high time the government takes the lead in bringing the leaders and communities of this troubled district together to genuinely seek and agree a way to live with one another in peace.
Either that or Mahlanya’s prophetic words shall remain true of Mafeteng forever.

Majara Molupe


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