Breaking the chains

Breaking the chains

Hlaele’s 40-year journey in trade unionism……………

MASERU – If there is anything that has come to define Lebohang Hlaele’s tenure as Minister of Law in the last 14 months, it is his extremely messy public fallout with Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara. His critics within the opposition, who are many, say Hlaele has not been ashamed to aggressively push a naked plot to oust Chief Justice Majara and replace her with a “pliant” judge.
They say Hlaele has been brazenly waging a vicious assault on the independence of the judiciary. They say he wants to capture the judiciary.
On one side is Hlaele and the government while on the other is Justice Majara and her sympathisers.
Fighting in the judge’s corner is a motley collection of international and local groups that have issued scathing statements against the coalition government for allegedly poking their noses into the affairs of the courts.

Critics say Hlaele’s “shooting from the hip” approach in dealing with his political rivals has not made things any better.
They say he has been too aggressive and very antagonistic in pushing his agenda.
That is nonsense, says Hlaele.

“I’m not after her,” he says. “It’s a perception that we want to get her out. All we want is to make sure there is rule of law.”
Hlaele insists the coalition government has no intention of undermining the judiciary either.
He says while the judiciary is independent, “administratively we have to ensure the rule of law is maintained”.
“The independence of any institution is not absolute.”

Hlaele says the government’s beef with the Chief Justice emanates from a perception that certain wrongs were done and these should be investigated without fear or favour.
“The Chief Justice must clear her name,” he says.
Hlaele says as head of the Ministry of Law in Lesotho, the Chief Justice had, among other issues, dismally failed to deal with the huge backlog of cases within the courts resulting in some cases dragging for as long as 10 years without being finalised.

That is totally unacceptable, he says.
“We have more than a thousand cases that are stuck there. Justice has to be seen to be done to Basotho.”
“If that is pushing, then so be it,” he says.
Hlaele says all they are looking for is “for the Chief Justice to provide leadership in the judiciary”.

“The Minister is not above the law, the Prime Minister is not above the law and so is the Chief Justice.”
Hlaele says the perception that he was out to get the Chief Justice was wrong and has to be condemned in the strongest terms.
“I am not pushing her out but we want things to be done the right way.”

While Hlaele has been pushing hard to raise his concerns with Justice Majara he has also been vociferous in his defence of Justice Kananelo Mosito.
Justice Mosito was ousted by former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili for allegedly violating Lesotho’s tax laws.
Hlaele however insists that Justice Mosito was unfairly treated by Mosisili and deserves a second chance.

“He was unfairly targeted by the former Prime Minister. He failed to rise above petty politics. A case in point is when the former Prime Minister was inaugurated in 2015 where he greeted and shook hands with everybody except Justice Mosito. My view was and I still hold the same view that Justice Mosito’s removal by the former Prime Minister was politically motivated.”
He says his decision to back Justice Mosito arises from legal opinion he was given as minister by the new Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) that “we did not have a case against Mosito”.
“Justice Mosito, in my opinion, has to go back to his position if nothing wrong is found against him, like any other Mosotho. It’s not about Justice Mosito, as a person, but about justice to a Mosotho.

“We will raise our concerns as government whenever we think things are not done in the best interest of justice. It is all about justice being done to every Mosotho.”
A fiery trade unionist with no legal training, Hlaele unsurprisingly sometimes comes across as brusque. What he lacks in legal finesse, he compensates with raw drive to get things done.
“When I arrived in the ministry, I told myself that I am not a lawyer but my focus would be on managing the ministry with the help of lawyers,” he says.
“They would come with their legal skills and I would bring my managerial skills and I am happy to say we are gelling very well.”
He says when he arrived at the ministry he was met with demoralised civil servants creaking under the oppressive weight of a system that had for many years learnt to accept and promote mediocrity.

They were not motivated and had no clear plans and targets and that made them unaccountable, he says.
Hlaele is married to Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s daughter. The couple met in 2007 and got married in 2013.
It is a relationship that has brought its own baggage, particularly with reference to Hlaele’s political career.
As Thabane’s son-in-law, Hlaele says he is fully aware of the perception that his appointment as minister was as a direct result of his familial relationship with the Prime Minister.
“He (Thabane) was accused of nepotism (after my appointment in 2017),” he says.

Hlaele is at pains to portray himself as his own man.
He says he joined the All Basotho Convention (ABC) at its formation in 2006 on the basis of principle.
“I did not marry and then join the ABC. I joined the ABC first,” he says.

He says their relationship is that of father-in-law and son-in-law when it comes to family issues. Party and government business are treated separately, he says.
“When there is something I need to criticise about the party and government, I will criticise him without fear or favour but with respect. I will go to his State House and talk to him. But when I engage in matters of family I make it very clear that let’s talk about family matters.”
“I raise these issues frankly and robustly but with respect, that is how I am.”

Hlaele says Lesotho’s biggest challenges emanate from a vacuous political leadership that is selfish and only looks after its own interests.
“We have leaders who are unable to live up to their promises. People are looking after their own interests to see how they can survive.”
He says Lesotho needs a leadership that “thinks it’s not about me, it’s about our people, it’s about my country”.

Hlaele says for too long Basotho have been divided on the basis of party political affiliation to the detriment of the nation.
“We must forget about party colours and look for capable leaders to take us where we want our country to be.”
Hlaele’s comment come as his ABC party is embroiled in unprecedented turmoil sparked by bitter leadership squabbles.
Two weeks ago, Thabane was heckled by aggrieved party supporters in scenes that gave the clearest indication that the party was going through serious problems.
ABC chairman, Motlohi Maliehe was last month sacked as tourism minister after he publicly chastised Thabane’s wife, ’Maesaiah Thabane, for allegedly interfering in the running of the government operations.

Maliehe says he is now leading a push to get Thabane kicked out of the party he formed.
Hlaele says the current challenges were because the ABC is a “broad church that accommodates people from all walks of life and schools of thought”.
“It’s not possible to manage a party like the ABC, only Thabane and his leadership can do so,” he says.
He sees the current squabbles as a sign of the indiscipline that has engulfed the party.

“There are structures through which you should raise your views and once decisions have been taken, you cannot go out and say you did not agree with the decisions taken; that’s indiscipline because those decisions have been taken by a collective leadership.”
He also criticized a trend within the ABC of “disallowing dissent within the party”.
“That kills democracy. This tendency is foreign in any democratic set-up and is unacceptable,” he says
Hlaele says there will always be contradictions in running a party such as the ABC.
“A revolution without contradiction is incomplete, according to Lenin.”

Hlaele says Thabane has always encouraged engagement, dialogue and patience amongst members.
Born on May 6, 1958, Hlaele had a rough upbringing in Mohale’s Hoek. His father and mother divorced when he was two and he was taken in by his uncles.
He only went to school up to Form E and had to drop out after his uncles failed to raise school fees for him.

Like many other young boys growing up in Lesotho then, the young Hlaele packed his bags and headed to the gold mines of South Africa in 1977.
He was around 19 years old when he left Lesotho for a job as a Clerk at Grootvlei mines in Springs in Johannesburg.

Hlaele later continued with his studies in South Africa and completed a post-graduate Diploma in Labour Law and Human Resource Management Diploma.
The conditions at the mine were brutal.
The wages were poor and living conditions in the hostels were Spartan. It was no surprise that the conditions soon gave birth to a militant trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982.

Hlaele says the NUM, under a fiery Cyril Ramaphosa, who is now president of South Africa, and other leaders such as James Motlatsi and Elijah Barayi, soon became an irritant in the eyes of the apartheid regime as it pushed for better working conditions for the workers.
Hlaele says he joined the NUM and was immediately elected the NUM chairperson of the Grootvlei branch.

From that moment, Hlaele became steeped in trade unionism, pushing for the betterment of the working conditions of mine workers.
At the formation of COSATU in 1985, Hlaele was elected treasurer general of COSATU in the Wits region, which encompassed Pretoria, Gauteng and Vaal region.
He remembers with fondness how they orchestrated the biggest strike by mine workers in South Africa in 1987, sending the apartheid regime into a tailspin as the oppressive system tottered towards collapse.

As a direct result of the strike, 64 000 members out of the 340 000 members were fired by Anglo-American, the owners of the mines.
“We got injured as a union but we were not destroyed,” he says defiantly.
He says they had to do what they did in the 1980s because, “the mining industry was being run by a very stubborn racist clique”.
It is in trade unionism that Hlaele learnt his politics. Now 41 years after he first joined the mines, Hlaele can look back with pride at the experience he picked up over the years and apply it in his new assignment as Minister of Law.

The biggest lesson he learnt while working in the mines is that there is only one language that the mining magnates understand – trade unionism.
He says when workers are united, they are strong and when they are divided, they are weak and are easily manipulated by their bosses.
“Without unity, you could not get anything from the racist mine bosses who were running the mines,” he says.
We had to organise ourselves and demand what we felt was rightfully ours, he says.

“The 1956 Labour Relations Act as amended, made it impossible for workers to embark on a wildcat strike. But we learnt that you needed to be a leader who takes unpopular decisions as long as those decisions were in the interests of your members.”
“Happy workers are productive workers.”

Abel Chapatarongo

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