Speaking truth to power

Speaking truth to power

MASERU – Trouble appears to follow Moeketsi Tsatsanyane, 70, wherever he goes.
His bitter critics say he is a thief. Others say he is a trouble-maker who is always operating on the fringes of the law.
Yet others view him as a man who is not afraid to speak his mind and is therefore bound to making enemies; and over the past seven decades he has made as many enemies as he has made friends.

Even his critics, however, acknowledge that speaking truth to power has been one of his greatest assets.
“I am my own man,” he says.
“I cannot be controlled by anybody. When something is black, I take it to be black even if my leader says it’s brown. That’s why they say I am troublesome.”

That arrogant streak has not always endeared him to politicians who are often used to having it their own way.
Tsatsanyane says his political conscientisation came when he came face-to-face with the brutalities of the British colonial system when he was just 16.
His sister had arrived home from the then Soviet Union where she was studying journalism when white police officers who were armed to the teeth stormed their modest home in Maseru.

“When I got out of the house, a white man with a long 303 rifle, told me to go inside the house. We soon realised that our house had been surrounded by white police officers,” he says. “They thought that my sister had brought something dangerous from the Soviet Union.”

The Soviet Union, which was locked in a fierce ideological stand-off with the West, was considered the greatest threat to Western colonial interests in Lesotho and in Africa in general.

There were fears that the Soviet Union with its strong adherence to radical Communist thought would infect Basotho’s political thinking.
It was an ideological battle the British colonial authorities were not prepared to lose in Lesotho.

To deal with any potential for infiltration of Communist thinking, the British clamped down on any Basotho who would have visited that ‘godless’ society in Eastern Europe.

Yet, that incident in 1964 infuriated the young Tsatsanyane.
It also sowed within his young mind the seeds of his life-long attachment to Lesotho politics.
“From that day, I felt that there was something wrong with the colonial government. I was young but I began to agree with the politicians who were saying the British should go.”

And two years later in 1966, Lesotho attained its independence under the Basotho National Party (BNP) led by Chief Leabua Jonathan.
Tsatsanyane, who had joined the opposition Basotho Congress Party (BCP), says he had hoped that independence would usher in a new dispensation of peace and stability.

That did not prove to be. In 1970, Chief Leabua Jonathan controversially annulled the general election results and declared a state of emergency, setting the stage for a bruising 16-year battle for political supremacy.

Tsatsanyane was soon to find himself in the thick of things as the BCP tried “to fight back the dictatorship”.
“We believed that our struggle was a just struggle; we believed by refusing to accept the 1970 election results, Jonathan had undermined the principle of democracy and had to be toppled.”

“So our struggle was to reassert democracy.”
He said while their enemies would call them terrorists, “we saw ourselves as revolutionaries who were out to liberate our country”.
It was a struggle that would go on to claim many innocent lives.

Although he never joined the BCP’s military wing, the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), Tsatsanyane says he remained close to the party and the LLA, providing critical logistical support to oil the war machine.

“I would supply vehicles to the LLA to carry out their operations. I would find guns and ammunition and hand them over to the LLA. I was a facilitator.” Tsatsanyane says the 1974 military uprising to topple the government which was staged by the BCP was not only amateurish but was poorly orchestrated.

They even had to improvise some of the weapons, he says.
“We failed because this was not properly organised. It was done out of anger and was swiftly quashed by the government.”
Scores of BCP activists were arrested after the failed putsch and thrown into the Maseru Maximum Security Prison.
For Tsatsanyane, it was a case of yet another narrow escape.

With that rebellion quashed, the BCP went back to the drawing board and put together a new military unit – the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) – to take the struggle forward.
The LLA was formed in 1979.

Critics says the LLA was a ragtag military unit that launched sporadic yet ineffectual raids into Lesotho.
It was also poorly funded.

Perhaps that explains one incident that happened in 1979 that Tsatsanyane passionately narrates.
Bassie Mahase, who he says was a BCP activist, was arrested after he robbed a bank in Maputsoe, allegedly to fund the liberation army.
After his arrest, he was chained and shot by ’Mota Phaloane, who was the then head of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on March 26, 1979.

Tsatsanyane says he personally investigated the matter and handed over witnesses to the court to ensure justice was served.
Phaloane, who had argued in court that Mahase had attempted to attack him while chained, was found guilty of murder in the High Court.
“I am satisfied that the accused, fired at the deceased three times without lawful excuse and considering the nature of the weapon used, with intent to kill. My assessors are in agreement with this finding of fact,” said Justice F X Rooney in his judgment.

“The view I take of the evidence is that even if the story told by the accused was true, and the deceased somehow contrived to attack him, he was not justified in shooting him and was at the very least guilty of culpable homicide. I need say no more on that score because the version of the accused is rejected.”

Tsatsanyane says it was his involvement with the Mahase case that swiftly brought him on a collision course with the police who saw him as a “trouble maker”.

“I became the enemy of the police from then on. They said my attitude was preventing the police from doing their work.”
Tsatsanyane says the hardening of positions by the police did not bother him because “I knew I was on the right side of the law”.
But something happened after the Mahase trial.

Tsatsanyane says it was a “Damascan moment” for him that saw him begin to soften his attitude towards Chief Jonathan.
“I realised the problem was not with Jonathan as a person; it lay with his people who were not his type.”
In fact, Tsatsanyane believes Jonathan was “the best leader Lesotho ever had”.

“He loved his country and he loved his people.”
Still his links with the BCP always came back to haunt him.
“Nobody has been arrested as many times as myself in this country. They would search me saying they are looking for arms and ammunition. Sometimes they said I was a thief.

“But I am not a thief. I have never stolen even a packet of sweets from anybody.”
Tsatsanyane believes the numerous arrests by the police were “pure harassment” because of his links with the BCP.
“The authorities got to know that I was involved with the Lesotho Liberation Army but they never got anything to tie me down. That was because I was dealing with the top brass of the LLA.”

Almost 30 years after the guns went silent, Tsatsanyane says his only regret was that “lives were lost” during the war and in the course of the struggle he “did things that might have harmed other families”.

Still he believes this was a just struggle “although I did not reap any fruits”.
“Instead of me getting something from the struggle, I lost everything that I had.
“When I joined politics full-time in 1991, I closed down all my businesses and concentrated on politics. I came up with music and did promotional shows for the BCP.”

Yet, he says he has no regrets for the role he played in consolidating democracy in Lesotho.
As he enters the sun-set of his long political career, Tsatsanyane wants Basotho to reflect on the good as well as the bad he did over the last 70 years.
“Whatever right I did they should take it up and whatever wrongs they should throw away. Everyone who was in a revolution obviously did something wrong. It would be good to say I am sorry for whatever bad things I did.”

He cites the case of Gerald Zwakala, a former staunch BNP member who was at the receiving end of BCP attacks.
“The LLA destroyed his businesses and buildings until he had nothing. I have gone to make peace with him and he is now like a brother to me.”
Tsatsanyane believes that the SADC-driven reforms offer a chance to fix what has been ailing this country for decades.
“Once we get the politics right, everything will fall into place.”

Abel Chapatarongo

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