The triumph of hope

The triumph of hope

MASERU-WHEN Lesotho’s borders were tightly shut on March 31 to keep out the Covid-19 pandemic, ’Marethabile Sekhiba immediately knew that her tourism business was in trouble.

Yet even before the lockdown, this was a business that was already in distress.
Out of 26 workers, she had just retrenched 15, leaving a core team of just 11.
The lockdown, which was announced by then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, set in motion what has been an extremely traumatic period for business and especially the local tourism sector.

This was at a time when there were real fears that the virus would easily overwhelm Lesotho’s weak health system while sending thousands of workers packing as companies buckled under pressure.
Those fears were soon realised as companies began to lay off staff in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.

Sekhiba’s business was not spared.
Now six months down the line, the jobs carnage has continued unabated.
The tourism sector has been among the hardest hit.
With all its borders closed, Lesotho has not had a single foreign tourist visiting the country since April.

The Moshoeshoe I International Airport has not had any significant air traffic, save for instance, the odd plane bringing in a special team of Chinese medical doctors to fight Covid-19.
Six months later, the airport remains eerily quiet.
On Tuesday this week, thepost visited the airport and found it virtually deserted.

“I thought this (lockdown) was going to be a short-term thing and within three months we would be done,” she says.
“I knew business would not be the same but I never thought things would be this bad.”
But even after she retrenched staff, more than half of her staff complement, the pressure never relented.

“I didn’t know what I should do but at the same time I felt we could not retrench more. The team we had left was the team that was to take us through and help us get back on our feet.”
The decision to lay off staff was the hardest, Sekhiba says.
That was because she knew that for every Mosotho she employed, that person was probably supporting at least five other individuals.

And by retrenching the workers, one would literally be “taking bread away from their mouth” – a reference to a rich Sesotho idiom that vividly captures the brutal nature of the retrenchments.
“That kept me wide awake at night,” she says.
“I felt so bad when I had to tell them that I was sending them home. It was very stressful.”

“But I realised that I had to do it, otherwise the whole ship would sink. I quickly learnt that business presents you with tough decisions and this was probably one of the toughest.”
With no tourists coming in, Sekhiba says they had to quickly think off their feet to survive.
At least 45 percent of her business clients were visitors coming mainly from South Africa.

However, when her Scenery Guest House in Maseru East was picked as one of the quarantine centres in Maseru, she thought all the cards were finally falling into place.
But that too came with its own challenges.
Her staff feared they would be infected with Covid-19, a virtual death sentence for a disease without any known cure.

By accepting to take in Covid-19 suspects, they were entering virgin territory with its own latent dangers.
To calm their nerves, Sekhiba quickly brought in a medical expert to train them on how to handle Covid-19 suspects who had been quarantined.
But six months after she began offering the service, Sekhiba says she is still waiting for the government to pay her.

The delays in payments are now threatening to sink her business.
That is true for other players in the tourism sector as well, she says.
All she wants for now is for the government to cough up.
That is all I want, she says.
Sekhiba is currently serving as the chairperson of the Lesotho Hotels and Hospitality Association, a powerful lobby group that promotes the interests of players in the tourism sector.

She says there is an urgent need to embark on an aggressive campaign to market the country as a destination of choice for tourists.
She wants to see Lesotho having a “strong presence” at international trade shows.

Botswana and South Africa do it so well in marketing their countries as tourism destinations and Sekhiba says now is the time we learn a few tricks from these countries to market Lesotho.
The current efforts to market Lesotho have remained largely ineffectual because “we have allowed politics to separate us as a people”.
“Instead of focusing on the most important things, we have allowed ourselves to focus on issues that divide us. It is always a question of who do we bring down?”

That has been true even in the tourism sector, she says.
“We are bringing ourselves down; that is killing us as a country.”
Even though Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is a ruthless dictator he gets things done, she says.
And from the ashes of a genocide that saw a million Tutsis massacred in 1994, Kagame has rebuilt Rwanda into a “tourism Mecca”.
“We need to build and instill in our people the love of the country first; that will help us move forward.”

Instead of focusing on progress in building our country, Basotho have squandered a lot of time squabbling about politics, she says.
“When are we going to wake up?”
“As long as we have these current political squabbles, it is going to be extremely difficult to move forward as a country.”

Growing up in the late 70s in Maseru, Sekhiba says she always knew that she would end up in business.
“At first I did not know what business I would go into but all I knew was that I wanted to be in business,” she says.
She says her late father, Stephen Manare, a qualified accountant, was the driving force behind her decision to enter into business.

“He always emphasised the importance of education; his family was poor and for him his position was that he did not want to live in poverty just like his parents. He wanted a better life.”
“Since my father was an accountant, he didn’t want me to be an accountant. He wanted me to go a step higher and become a medical doctor,” she says.
“She wanted me to be better than him and he felt that being a doctor would be a step higher,” she says.

However, things did not turn out that way.
In 1992, Sekhiba was to enroll at the Centre for Accounting Studies (CAS) for a course in Chartered Accountancy.
She later enrolled in a Master’s programme in Accountancy in Ireland.
She taught briefly at the Centre for Accountancy before she was seconded to the Irish Embassy in Maseru.

“It was while I was at the embassy that I realised that there were lots of tourists who were coming into Lesotho but were staying in Ladybrand with some sleeping as far as Bloemfontein.
“That immediately stirred up something that was sleeping within me – that this was a gap I could probably fill,” she says.

After some serious research Sekhiba realised there were not enough accommodation facilities in Lesotho and that even for those that were available, the quality was not up to scratch.
That was the “Damascan moment” when her eyes were opened and she took a deliberate step to plunge into the tourism sector in partnership with her husband, Mohau Sekhiba.

That was in 2006.
Although she agreed with her father on so many other issues, her decision to leave formal employment to start a business rattled him as he strongly opposed the decision.
He always believed it was safer to keep a job where you are employed rather than run your own.

It was only some few years later when her father came to the realisation that her daughter was right.
“In 2011, I finally ventured into business full-time and have never looked back. Employment teaches you discipline but business is very different – it keeps you humble.”

There were moments when she wanted to give up, but she persevered.
“Not knowing where the money to pay salaries was going to come from was the worst feeling; you have sleepless nights but you must be ready to face all these challenges that come your way,” she says.

“Sometimes you feel like giving up but then comes a point where you realise such moments were there to build you, to build your character. You realise that after winter, comes spring.”
Sekhiba says she was very excited when the Lesotho government passed the Married Persons Equality Act that allowed women to own businesses.
Previously, women in Lesotho could not buy land or own a business as they were considered legal minors.

“We were considered minors and one could start a business but could not own it. Your spouse could just wake up one day and decide to sell the business without your knowledge,” she says.
“Even when you applied for a loan, your husband had to approve it. The law brought so much insecurity to women.”

Abel Chapatarongo

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