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Lesotho elections: maturing democracy or a failure of institutions?

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John Aerni-Flessner

When Tom Thabane and the All Basotho Convention (ABC) took power after the 2012 elections, it marked the first peaceful transfer of power in Lesotho’s relatively brief history.

It also marked the country’s first instance of coalition government. Many southern African political commentators, including this author, found reason for optimism in 2012 with the dawning of the coalition era in Lesotho’s politics, but was this optimism misplaced?

June 3, 2017 will mark the third time in five years that Lesotho has held a general election. The election comes on the heels of Democratic Congress (DC) Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili losing a no-confidence motion in March in Parliament.

His unwieldy seven-party coalition degenerated into infighting less than two years after taking office. This is the second coalition failure in three years.

In 2014, All-Basotho Convention (ABC) Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s five-party coalition crumbled only two years after taking office.
The rapid disintegration of two successive coalition governments and continued political violence at the highest levels of politics and security have tarnished the hope seen at the time.

With coalitions seeming unstable in Lesotho, is there any hope that the continuation of the “coalition era” after the 2017 elections will lead to good governance for ordinary Basotho?
Or do we have to reasonably conclude that coalitions are another failed experiment in the 50-year search for stable, representative government in Lesotho?

History suggests that any new coalition will be inherently unstable, but that as of yet, all hope is not lost for governmental stability in Lesotho.

Time is surely ticking, however, on how long the current system can survive if a third consecutive coalition fails to finish a five-year term.
The nature of the electoral system ensures that another coalition will come to power in June, but the number of parties and the ambitions of the top leaders will, as always, determine the shape the new government takes.

PM Mosisili’s government fell after one of his top deputies — Minister Monyane Moleleki — split from the ruling DC, formed a new party, the Alliance of Democrats (AD), and allied with Thabane’s opposition ABC.

These former rivals agreed to a novel prime minister-sharing agreement if this alliance comes out on top in the polls. The agreement would make Moleleki, the junior partner, the prime minister for the first 18 months, with Thabane taking over after that.
The price for Thabane seems steep, but it is a price he is evidently willing to pay to return to power, especially at the expense of his chief rival, Mosisili.

The prime minister is not going away without a fight, however. Mosisili’s DC recently announced a “vote sharing” deal with his primary coalition partner Mothetjoa Metsing and the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).

They will combine forces in the hope of gaining both more wins in first-past-the-post constituencies, as well as concentrating votes to garner proportional representation members. This strategy is also being employed by the opposition alliance.

All of these pre-election machinations raise the question of what it means to have separate parties if the level of co-ordination and co-operation is this close.

Similarly, and more important, what benefit will ordinary Basotho see from all this political manoeuvring?
The recent experiences of coalition governments suggest these are simply strategies for gaining and maintaining power, rather than tactics that will lead to better governance from a future government.

All parties are accruing political debts to smaller partners that will probably need to be repaid with ministerial positions and other expansions of top governmental posts.

The less cynical read of pre-election manoeuvring is that at least these political innovations are coming from Basotho.
There has been deep distrust from all sides of outside commissions and South African/SADC mediation over the years.

The current opposition is opposed to the mediation of South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa because they see him as being too close to former Deputy Prime Minister Metsing to act as a neutral broker.

Similarly, the government alliance saw the SADC-sponsored Phumaphi Commission as being biased against them.

The commission investigated the 2015 assassination of former LDF head Maaparankoe Mahao, and other assorted political violence that occurred in the wake of the August 2014 coup/not-a-coup in Maseru. Resistance to these efforts has seemingly poisoned the chance for outsiders to broker political deals leading to systemic change. Basotho-led initiatives probably have the best chance to succeed.

The more cynical read is that the long history of political contestation after elections, squabbling over positions within government, and lack of government stability are features of the political system that will not change with such paper-thin “reforms.”

Under this scenario, the 2017 elections might just mark the last gasp of the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system in Lesotho.
From the perspective of the Basotho public, national legislators are highly unpopular.
While party rallies still attract large crowds at weekends ahead of the vote, most Basotho voters do not believe that politics at the national level will solve their everyday problems.

So where does Lesotho go from here? What can Basotho do?
First: Basotho can vote. Turnout for the 2015 elections slid below 50 percent, which gives Basotho politicians little incentive to broaden their appeal. Only the most partisan voters are coming out to the polls.

Second: Basotho involved in parties can insist that their leaders prepare for succession. None of the major political parties in Lesotho have ever voluntarily turned over leadership.

Only illness/death and intra-party coups have managed to unseat party leadership in the independence era. Having no succession plan means that younger, ambitious leaders have more incentive to split and form their own party in the hope of gaining personal power. Ambition cannot wait in a system that rewards schism.

Third: Reform the MMP system so that parties have to gain a sizeable national standing in order to gain parliamentary representation.
With the smallest party in the 2015-17 Parliament garnering fewer than 2 000 votes nationwide, there is little reason for a politician with any base of support not to form a new party.

With the bar to get into Parliament so low, and given the stark political divides that mean even a few independent seats can make or break a coalition, the chance of ending up in a ministerial position is relatively high. Thus, a canny politician can turn a few thousand votes into a powerful position.

Fourth: Basotho need to continue demanding a revamping of the role the security forces play in public life, an issue that has long bedeviled the political stability of the Mountain Kingdom.
With the exception of the security reforms, a seemingly intractable problem at the moment, these are all steps that Basotho who are not parliamentarians can take.

There are organisations within Lesotho, like the Transformation Resource Centre, the Lesotho Council of NGOs, and Development for Peace Education pushing for these goals.
They need, however, a broad-based coalition of support, in particular from rural Basotho, to further an agenda of increased political transparency.

With public pride for Lesotho running deep, solutions to these problems will probably have to come from within.
The 2017 elections can be a venue for Basotho weary of shortsighted political leadership to take the lead in demanding political reform.
The alternative will probably be more of the same that they saw in the 2012-2017 period: short-term coalition governments worried more about internal political machinations than governance, and a constant supply of new political parties.

lJohn Aerni-Flessner is an assistant professor of African History whose work focuses on 20th century Lesotho. He is based at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University (USA).
—Daily Maverick

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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