Pushing the ‘old guard’ out

Pushing the ‘old guard’ out

MASERU-Machesetsa Mofomobe, 45, last week set the cat among the pigeons when he called on the “old guard” of Lesotho’s politics to step aside to give way to the younger generation. It was a call that was not only blunt in its tone but broke all Basotho cultural norms and expectations where deference to authority is often the order of the day.

Even when Lesotho’s politicians feel strongly about leadership renewal, rarely do we hear them speak out with such boldness and refreshing candour.
What we often see is a fawning worship of the “dear leader”, sometimes to nauseating levels.

As a result any discussion and debate on the necessity for leadership renewal within political parties and nationally is often treated as treasonous. Anyone who seeks to raise the issue of leadership renewal is often vilified and is seen as a “witch” who is standing at the door, seeking to stampede the “dear leader” out of power so that they can take over.

It is a political tactic that has often stifled genuine debate on succession politics and leadership renewal. If ever there is debate, the debate is of such low quality that it is often sterile. It is within this cultural context that Mofomobe’s call must be understood.

“I am of the view that it is time we let the old guard move on,” he says.

By the “old guard” Mofomobe refers to politicians who have dominated the Lesotho political scene for decades. Such leaders include Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, now 78, former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili, 73, and the current deputy prime minister Monyane Moleleki who has been an MP since the reintroduction of democracy in Lesotho in 1993.

Also included in this group is Mofomobe’s current leader within the BNP, Thesele ’Maseribane. He says the four leaders must pass on the leadership baton to younger leaders within their own parties. It is a call that has not been received graciously by party supporters across the board, Mofomobe says.

“Some were very mad, very mad,” he says when asked about the reaction to his call for leadership renewal. “They said I should mind my own business and restrict myself to my BNP party.”

Mofomobe says he is a strong believer in the principle of two-term limits for leaders so that “we can generate new ideas to take Lesotho forward”.

“The two-term limits will always pave way for new ideas,” he says.

“After being in office for 10 years, what is it that you can offer after 10 years?” Mofomobe says Basotho must take advantage of the current SADC-driven reforms to push for the introduction of two-term limits for the Prime Minister.

“We must phase out the old generation,” he says.

He says while he received hostile responses to his call for leadership renewal, he is happy that his call managed to prick the national conscience and spark a critical debate on an important subject that had remained taboo. It is a subject that he says no one dared to raise before he made the call. Mofomobe says the call has received widespread endorsement from key players within civil society, the academia and the diplomatic community.

Thanks to his outspokenness, he says “the debate (on leadership renewal) is now on”.

“It has triggered some talking, a talking nobody wanted to talk about. The people were scared,” he says. Mofomobe says the problem in Lesotho is that we elevate our leaders “to some godly figures” we have to agree with all the time.

“That is not right. We must engage them on issues and sometimes agree to disagree with them.” The deification of the leader means we tell the leaders only that they would want to hear, he says.

Just like Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) across the border in South Africa, Mofomobe’s version of politics sounds extremely radical. That is no surprise given Mofomobe’s youthful take on politics. As we conducted the interview, a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I like , lay open on his desk.

Biko was one of the great thinkers during the struggle in South Africa whose black consciousness movement inspired a young generation of Africans to take the apartheid regime head on. Like Malema, Mofomobe wants to see radical changes within Lesotho’s economy to empower Basotho. It is a vision that will require a generational change, right at the top, to see it through.

“There are things we need to do that we have not been doing well,” he says, eyes lightening up. He wants the government to empower local farmers so that they can produce enough to feed Basotho.

“We import toothpicks from South Africa. That is madness. We import cabbages and eggs. That too is madness,” he says.

“We need to empower our people so that they can grow cabbages, carrots and other vegetables even if it means putting greenhouses. These things can turn our economy around,” he says.

But to help local farmers, the government must seriously begin a process to protect local farmers by adopting stringent import permits for South African agricultural products. Such protectionist policies will cushion local farmers and develop the local economy, he says.

“We should produce locally and eat locally,” he says.

Mofomobe says for decades Lesotho’s wool was exported to South Africa where it would be classified and sold to Europe. Lesotho would only get the crumbs from the middlemen. He wants to see the buying and selling of the wool all being done in Lesotho, with no South African middlemen to ensure more revenue for Lesotho farmers.

He also wants to see Basotho owning a bigger stake in textile factories which have remained largely dominated by the Chinese and Taiwanese. Mofomobe also wants to see a radical shift in the ownership of mines with Basotho owning 75 percent stake, unlike the current 25 percent. He however admits that the radical proposal might not sit well with some of his colleagues in politics “who have corruptly benefitted from the state”.

He believes only when Lesotho takes such radical economic decisions will it be able to cut its dependence on South Africa. “If you take a soft approach you will not succeed,” he says. “The soft approach is killing us. We need legislation and time-frames to ensure these things are done fast.”

Mofomobe says the government is already engaged in a parliamentary process to repeal section 40 and 41 of the Constitution to allow for dual citizenship. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2018 seeks “to remove the Constitutional prohibition on dual citizenship and restoration of Lesotho citizenship with the aim of facilitating the return and reintegration of Lesotho citizens by birth or ancestry who lost their citizenship”.

“The Bill was long overdue,” Mofomobe says.

He says there are “lots of Basotho who acquired South African citizenship whom we know are Basotho but cannot acquire land in Lesotho”.

Such individuals will have the opportunity to come back home and invest in their country, he says. “That will restore their pride as Basotho.”

As Deputy Home Affairs Minister, Mofomobe, with his boss, Tsukutlane Au, is intimately involved in negotiations to ease the movement of people between Lesotho and South Africa, an issue that has been a source of grief for Basotho. He says South Africa’s fears of terrorism are real.

“They need to know who is coming into their country.”

He believes the biometric system introduced by South Africa will ease the movement of people and reduce the hassles at the border. They will also not have to use their passports as long as they are documented, he says. He says Lesotho has already signed an African Union protocol to promote free movement between borders within the continent. Under the protocol, any person visiting an African country will be granted 90 days to stay in the country.

“It’s still not good enough but it is a step in the right direction.”

Mofomobe says the idea is that by 2023, there should be free movement between and among all African countries. He says it is critical that the current SADC-driven reform process be as inclusive as possible. The government must do all it can to ensure former deputy premier, Mothetjoa Metsing, is persuaded to come back home from exile.

“They have to be engaged to come and participate in the reforms. If he can’t be available then his party (Lesotho Congress for Democracy) must be engaged,” he says.

Mofomobe says Metsing must stand his ground and allow the court process to run its course and not be a “cry baby” all the time. He says no one wants to physically harm Metsing adding he will be the first to speak out for his protection.

“We are bound by the Constitution to protect him,” he says. Mofomobe was born on November 11, 1973 to a father who was a civil servant. His mother died when he was six. She was only 39 when she died in 1979.

“My father was a father and mother at the same time,” he says.

“It was very difficult for him to raise the seven of us. We could see that the man was struggling but there was nothing we could do at that age to assist.”

Yet, despite the challenges, Mofomobe says he still went to Iketsekeng Primary School which was one of the best schools in Maseru during those days. Mofomobe entered politics when he was just 14, drawn by the politics of Chief Leabua Jonathan who was the Prime Minister. He says Jonathan was a no-nonsense man who did not tolerate laziness.

He says during his tenure, at least five ministers were fired for non-performance. “He meant business. In everything he did Basotho and Lesotho came first,” he says.

“If you drive from the traffic circle in town to Butha-Buthe, that road was built in 1982. It is still intact up to now. The road from Mafeteng to Quthing is also still intact.

“Today, they build roads and the government has to re-budget because they are of poor quality and no one is held accountable,” he says.

“Thirty years after his death, no Prime Minister present and past can match Chief Leabua Jonathan’s record.”

Mofomobe says Chief Jonathan chased away de Beers, a South African mining giant telling them that “they could not own more than the people of this country”.

He also refused to sign the Lesotho Highlands Water Treaty arguing it was heavily skewed in favour of South Africa. “It was for these reasons that Jonathan remains a hero to me,” he says. Mofomobe is however no historical revisionist. He resists the temptation to revise history to pep over Jonathan’s weaknesses.

He admits that in seeking to defend his rule, the former premier might have overstepped the mark during the political turmoil between 1970 and 1986 when he was eventually toppled during a military coup. “Some people suffered at the hands of his government,” he says.

But he says he was left with no choice but to defend his government after some BCP supporters attacked police stations during the 1970 post-election dispute. “No legitimate government could sit back and watch itself being attacked by guerillas. Any responsible government would act against such acts of sabotage,” he says.

Mofomobe argues it would be unfair to try and assess Jonathan’s government through modern lenses of democratic governance. He says the issue of human rights was not as pronounced as it is today. “It was not a big issue then.”

Mofomobe says he still harbours the dream that one day he will be the Prime Minister of Lesotho. “I am very far in terms the hierarchical structure of the BNP. I am number 11 in the hierarchy. But some dreams eventually come true, others don’t,” he says.

“But it’s not a bad thing to dream about being a Prime Minister.”

Abel Chapatarongo

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