Split loyalties

MASERU – IT has without doubt been one of the most gripping political soap operas ever witnessed in Lesotho.
With its wicked twists and turns, Basotho and the rest of the international community, were left horrified as details of the murder plot were unraveled.
What they learnt was to shock them to the core.

Late in the afternoon of June 17, 2017, unidentified gunmen had waylaid the estranged wife of former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, Lipolelo Thabane, in Ha-’Masana on the outskirts of Maseru.
The gunmen mercilessly pumped several bullets into her body, instantly killing her. Her friend, Thato Sibolla, who was travelling with her in the same car, was seriously wounded.
But thanks to God, she survived the gruesome attack to tell the tale.
Sibolla has now turned a key state witness in the murder.

The senseless murder baffled Basotho. The killing brought not just sadness but fear as well. It also brought international opprobrium as the spotlight was once again shone on Lesotho.
The image was not a good one.
The reaction from some quarters was: Here we go, courting global attentional for all the wrong reasons once again.

When the dust had hardly settled, Liabiloe Ramoholi, (Maesiah’s maiden name), walked on the aisle and married her sweet-heart, Thomas Thabane, at a colourful ceremony at Setsoto Stadium.
But things quickly unraveled in January this year after the Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli accused Thabane and his wife, ’Maesiah, of having a hand in the murder of Lipolelo.

The shock allegation, which was contained in an explosive court affidavit, triggered a political tsunami in Lesotho that eventually swept away Thabane, ending his long but illustrious political career.
While all this drama was playing out ’Mabatšoeneng Nkoya Hlaele, 50, Thabane’s daughter, found herself caught up on opposing sides of the political fence with her own father.

It was a clash that soon strained and tested familial bonds.
In some quarters, Hlaele was now seen as the daughter who shamelessly “attacks” her own father.

Hlaele is married to Lebohang Hlaele, who was elected secretary general of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) party at a stormy conference early last year.

Hlaele found herself pitted against her own father, an “unforgivable sin” among certain sections of the community in this deeply patriarchal society.
Her husband, a man with his own political ambitions, found himself at cross purposes with his own father-in-law after he decided to contest for the ABC’s secretary general’s post.
Thabane had thrown his weight behind Samonyane Ntsekele for the same post.

The Hlaeles were also backing a faction of the ABC that had thrown its weight behind Professor Nqosa Mahao.
Mahao, who was infamously described by Thabane as a “rag”, did not see eye-to-eye with the then Prime Minister.

It has been an extremely messy political fight that has split the family.
While the politics is playing out at the national level, Hlaele is at pains to come to terms with what has happened to her father.

Hlaele seems to be struggling to process the serious disconnect between the narrative in the public domain that her father was in some way involved in the Lipolelo murder and what she knows about her father.
She finds it extremely difficult to accept that her own father is a suspect in a murder case that has brought back international spotlight on Lesotho.

As a beloved daughter, she would be expected to know her father just as she knows the back of her hand and from what she knows about him she says she has “zero doubts that he had anything to do with that murder”.
“He had zero reasons to kill her.”

Hlaele describes her father as a man who has “a high sense of justice” – and she swears that he did not do it.
But isn’t she allowing her filial ties with her own father to cloud her sense of judgment? Is this not a naked and brazen attempt to cleanse her father’s soiled image in the eyes of the public?
What if he is eventually convicted in a court of law?

Hlaele, a lawyer, quickly dons her “legal mind” and boldly says if it is proven that he did it, then he “must not be shielded from the letter of the law”.
“He hates criminality and to kill intentionally would go against his sense of being,” she says.

Hlaele runs a successful law firm in Maseru, N G Thabane Chambers, and also teaches Criminal Law and Practical Legal Training at the National University of Lesotho.
She denies that she is on a crusade to “persecute Liabiloe”, a telling reference to the apparent contempt she holds her own step-mother by referring to her by her first name.
“We have a criminal justice system and anyone who has killed must face our criminal justice system. If she (’Maesiah) is a suspect, then she must be investigated,” she says.

Thabane, who was twice elected Prime Minister between 2012 and 2017, was pushed out of power in May following damaging allegations that he had a hand in his estranged wife’s killing.
For decades, he was the “poster-boy” of Lesotho politics.

As the darling of the masses, where did it all go wrong, we ask Hlaele?
The response is brutal – it was all Maesiah’s fault, she says.
She says Thabane had over the years built strong friendships with people who matter – the intellectual giants of Lesotho.
Within that context he would tap into their wisdom from time to time.
“He was surrounded by that crop of intellectual wealth. They provided some stability in his life,” she says.

But when he got married to ’Maesiah “all these people disappeared and she became his sole adviser and confidante”.
“All these people with encyclopedic knowledge were immediately declared persona non grata and the young people, with no experience, became his advisers. That was the beginning of his downfall.”

My father did not need these young people to help him make decisions, she says.
“It was a complete overhaul of his decision-making process,” she says. “Consultations began with her. She became his sole confidante and that was extremely dangerous for my father.”

With her father virtually “captured” by the newcomers and political nonentities, it became very difficult “to penetrate” this new circle of friends. The result was that her father became a “victim of bad advice”.
Hlaele again says all this was ’Maesiah’s fault.
With her relationship with father seriously dented, she says she has not had a chance to speak to her father after he lost power in May.
“I want tempers to cool down,” she says.

But she remembers with fondness her attachment to her father whilst growing up in Maseru West, which was then a plush suburb in Maseru.
Hers was a middle-class upbringing in Maseru. Her father was a senior civil servant while her mother was a clerk in a bank.
“I don’t have a poverty story to tell and I say this with all modesty,” she says.

She remembers with fondness how her father would push them hard to read.
“We were made to read; ours was a family of readers. No piece of paper would pass by my father’s hand without him reading it and contextualizing it.”

In my formative years, he made me read the African writers’ series, books such as The River Between, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and of course William Shakespeare, she says.
“I grew up in an environment of intense reading. The Sunday Times (a South African weekly newspaper) was the highlight of the week. We listened to the radio and were well read. This was a very happy childhood.”

Hlaele says that is why she never seemed to realise how turbulent her parents’ marriage was until after they split when she was just 10-years-old.
“He (Thabane) was a very good father; there was never a custody battle. We were shielded from all that.”

As a daughter of one of the most influential political giants in recent times, Hlaele must certainly have an opinion on where Lesotho has gone wrong as a country.
Her assessment is withering.
She says the crop of politicians we have had in Lesotho since independence from the British in 1966 had an almost visceral fixation with being appointed Cabinet ministers at the expense of service delivery.

Instead of serving Basotho, they wanted to be appointed cabinet ministers so that they could use such positions for wealth accumulation.
That, to Hlaele, has been our downfall.
That proved particularly true after the 1990s when Lesotho returned to civilian rule.

“Our politics have been driven by greed,” she says. “There is blatant corruption within government. The government was seen as the quickest means to build a double-storey house.”
“We had a legal framework for the tender system which was never followed.”
Hlaele says it was that realisation by her father that birthed the All Basotho Convention (ABC) party in 2006.

“He simply said he was tired of the thievery and that he was tired with the people who say they wanted to eradicate poverty yet do nothing,” she says.

She says those were the two motives that led her father to form the ABC.
To fix Lesotho and get this country working again will require a monumental effort by every Mosotho, she says.
“It is going to be a hard job but we have to get rid of the bad potatoes,” she says.

Being the ever optimist that she is, Hlaele says Moeketsi Majoro (Lesotho’s new Prime Minister) “might just be the right person for the job”.
Majoro was appointed Thabane’s successor in May after much bitter acrimony over Thabane’s successor.

Hlaele says the new coalition government made up of the two biggest political parties in Lesotho – the ABC and the Democratic Congress (DC) party, “might be the solution we need”.
“They will provide the checks and balances that are needed at the government level,” she says.

It is a romantic take on a turf that has proven treacherous for many a political party in Lesotho.
She admits just as much but Hlaele remains hopeful that this new government under Majoro will get Lesotho working again.

“Majoro is not your (political) messiah; he has to prove that he can make it. He has to prove his doubters wrong.”
But does Hlaele see herself jumping into mainstream politics one day, perhaps jostling for the country’s biggest job as Prime Minister?
She says she harbours “zero ambitions” to one day fill the big boots left by her father.

“Even if the branches were to speak I would silence them; that is not my calling and therefore no politician should see me as a threat,” she says.
“My calling is in law.”
Hlaele says while she might have ruled herself out there are still lots of capable women within her party and in the opposition who can make a difference in Lesotho.
These women must be given a chance not because they are women but because they have what it takes to lead.

Hlaele was born on January 25, 1970, four days after Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan declared a state of emergency.
In that sense, she thinks “political turmoil has always followed me”.
She says although her father was not a member of the ruling Basotho National Party (BNP) at that time, Jonathan had a soft spot for her father who he regarded as “a shining star”.
Thabane served as a Principal Secretary in the government led by Jonathan.

Having worked with some of the sharpest legal brains in the government, Thabane always marveled at the reasoning of lawyers during government deliberations.
“The likes of Ntate Molapo, who was the Minister of Justice and Ntate Molai had a big influence on my father.”

That perhaps explains why he nudged his daughter to also study law when she enrolled at the National University of Lesotho.
“He vicariously wanted to finish his ambitions through me and made law palatable to me,” she says.

And so when she enrolled at the NUL in 1990 there was no question as to what she was going to study; she knew she had to study law.
“Law just appealed to me, I saw it as the right thing to do.”
Hlaele is currently pursuing a PhD in Constitutional Law with the University of South Africa.

Abel Chapatarongo

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