In pursuit of justice

In pursuit of justice

MASERU – AT around 3.45pm on June 25, 2015, a driver to Professor Nqosa Mahao received a startling call from Maseru.
It was from the professor’s wife.

She had frantically tried to get hold of her husband without success and had to call his driver who was with him in Ladybrand, South Africa.
The terse message simply said ‘Maaparankoe has been shot’.

Professor Mahao had gone to Ladybrand, a sleepy farming town less than 15km from the Lesotho border, for a routine doctor’s appointment.
After receiving the message, Mahao went through moments of deep anguish, not knowing whether his brother was still alive or dead.
“What if he was being tortured?”

That mere thought almost drove him insane.
And so he sped back to Maseru, still clinging on to some hope – any hope – that his brother was still alive.
After arriving in Maseru, Mahao tried to call Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to find out what had happened to his brother.
That attempt drew a blank. Mosisili was not available on his mobile phone.

He also tried contacting the director of the National State Security (NSS), to get the Prime Minister’s mobile contact. The state security boss still could not get to the Prime Minister.
It proved to be a frantic yet very traumatic five hours until he, together with the rest of his family, received an official notification from the government at 9.30pm that his brother had indeed died.
“We wanted to go to the barracks ourselves to satisfy ourselves that he was indeed dead,” Mahao says.
The family were however dissuaded from going by the police who felt that such a mission was too dangerous amid such a volatile atmosphere.
“My brother’s wife never cried.”

The pain appeared too intense and the grief too private to share.
“It was a very traumatic moment for us.”
Maaparankoe Mahao’s wife, who had been staying with his brother-in-law, only broke down a day later when she told him she wanted to go to her home in Koalabata to feed their dogs.
The grief, the trauma, the reality of death had finally sunk.

Mahao says three years after that sad day in Mokema when his brother was brutally killed, the wounds are slowly healing.
“It’s far from complete. I still get emotional from time to time though,” he says.
Mahao’s death saw an unprecedented outpouring of national grief. Here was a life that had been cut short in its prime.
His death also proved to be the turning point in a push to oust the then coalition government led by Mosisili.

The tide suddenly turned against Mosisili and his coalition partners with SADC and the rest of the international community accusing the army of crossing the line.
In fact, a SADC commission of inquiry said the Lesotho army, under Lt Gen Tlali Kamoli had gone rogue and needed to be tamed.
Mosisili, for his part, apologised to the Mahao family in Parliament saying the death should not have happened, a stance that did little to placate an angry Mahao family.
Mahao says Mosisili however never came to us as a family to apologise. If he was sincere he should have gone to his widow.
His apology in Parliament was mere political posturing, Mahao says.

Mahao’s death pricked the nation’s collective conscience with his name soon becoming the rallying cry for the opposition in what it said was its quest to dismantle tyranny and oppression.
With his brother dead, Mahao says they had to “fight back” as they did not “want the enemy to see them as the vanquished”.
“It would have been a betrayal (to my brother) not to fight back,” he says.
“We were going to make a hot pursuit.”

Thus began a frenetic and relentless battle against the government. It was a propaganda war that the government soon lost. The Mahao family took on the whole state machinery in their push for justice.

And when SADC sent a mission to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mahao’s assassination and failed to speak to them, the family literally stormed the venue where the meeting was being held.
That strategy to fight back also proved therapeutic. It helped them heal, Mahao says.
“That kept us going. Taking on the regime was dangerous. We knew we were being followed but so had to change routines. I used to work after hours but I had to change all that.”
He says the massive outpouring of support from Basotho of all shades and hues and from the international community “enabled us to know that this was a test we had to go through and endure”.
Mahao also believes what befell his brother was “ordained to be the end of him”.

A lawyer who swapped the courtroom for army fatigues, Maaparankoe was a fiercely independent man.
“When it came to principles, even I would not move him,” Mahao says.
For instance, when his family was split whether he should join the army in 1996, Maaparankoe could not be dissuaded from joining the military.

Three years after his brother was gunned down, Mahao says they will not relent to ensure those who plotted his brother’s assassination “answer for what they did”.
“We now have so much information about who and where and how it was plotted.”

Yet Mahao says theirs is not a narrow, selfish struggle about themselves. This is a struggle for the betterment of all Basotho.
He says when they seek justice “this is not to deal with our own hurt but that there should be no Basotho who are plotting to murder others”.
“We want to push for a civilized culture that says no matter how much I dislike you, I should not have the power to take your life.”

Mahao wants to see those accused of perpetrating human rights violations arraigned before the courts.
“If they do not appear before our justice system, they are likely to repeat the same mistakes meaning my brother would have died in vain.”
Mahao says he stands ready to extend a hand of forgiveness as long as those accused of perpetrating crimes “are prepared to give truthful evidence”.
“That would help this country pull back from a culture of impunity.”

A brilliant scholar with a solid track record in academia, Mahao was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Lesotho (NUL) in September 2014.
His appointment came when the university was going through turbulence. In fact, the university had become the butt of jokes with endless strikes by both students and lecturers mostly over allowances, poor pay and working conditions.
The university had become a national embarrassment.

Now almost four years later, Mahao has managed to steady the ship. Even some of the bitterest critics of the university admit the school is now beginning to make steady gains in its attempt to regain its lost lustre. So what is his trick? “It all boils down to my style of engagement. The key is to engage,” he says.
As a former student leader in his own right, Mahao who once headed the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS), a militant students’ union that pushed the decolonisation agenda in the 1980s, says he is equally at peace when he engages students, snuffing out protests even before they develop.
“When I see students singing, I walk to them, engage them and ask them: how do we solve this problem?”

That “bottom-up” management style is working wonders in promoting harmonious working relations at the university, he says.
“I must admit that working conditions at the university remain deplorable but when you are transparent about the state of the institution and you engage them, they will always be supportive.”
What has also helped was that there was “buy-in” from stakeholders after they both developed a five-year strategic plan.
“After I took over, we went out and developed a strategic plan. They have a sense of ownership. The vision that we share is a collectively owned vision and is not my vision.”
Mahao says he senses a new spirit on campus with people saying “this is our university and we will make it the way we want”.

Mahao is not the type of manager who sits in his office and manages from his desk. He prefers to walk into offices, meet staff and chat. That way he is able to cultivate relationships and build trust.
“I have an open door policy especially for senior management and we sort our issues.”
He credits this management style for steadying the ship at the NUL.

“It has worked and has motivated staff to achieve things that a few years ago we would not have thought were possible.”
In a short space of four years, and against great odds, Mahao has managed to turn around the fortunes of a university that had become the byword for chaos.
The university had become notorious for its constant squabbles.

Now Mahao operates through a simple motto: Don’t mourn, do something about your situation.
“I see staff reaching out for their full potential and that is what inspires me and makes me look forward to the next day.”
Yet Mahao remains alive to the monumental challenges that still remain if the university is to produce the right products geared for the 21st century.
In a brutally scathing assessment, Mahao admits the quality of today’s university graduate leaves a lot to be desired.

The modern student is not interested in what is happening around him. Their comprehension of issues is pathetic. It’s a structural flaw which then feeds poor quality students from high school to university. “The fundamentals have almost collapsed,” he says.

This is a generation that is coached and nurtured by electronic gadgets – the cellphones. They do not even watch TV, he says.
The result is a pathetic, narcissist student shorn of any international outlook.
“They are cut off from the bigger picture,” he says.

Thankfully the situation is not hopelessly lost, according to Mahao. He says his spirit is lifted when he sees students organising themselves in a bid to take the future into their own hands.

The new spirit of entrepreneurship at the university could mean all is not lost, he says.
Mahao blames the “marketization of education”, a system that transformed the citizen into a consumer for the shallow education system we now have.
This has resulted in a generation that is more of a consumer than a citizen, he says.
Mahao was born on May 21, 1957, and at a time when he was around six or seven, he remembers sitting close to his father as he discussed with other activists discussing the political developments in Lesotho.

As he sat at their feet, he would begin to soak up his first political lessons.
“I would also find myself drawn into the discourse. I would find myself engaging in debates with my father. That developed in me a very independent and critical thinking for a seven-year-old.”
Even at that young age, Mahao says his father had already concluded that his son should eventually study law, warning that with such an independent mind he “would not survive in the civil service”.
He even bought him law books, which were kept in a trunk for years. And so when he enrolled at the NUL in 1978, his path had already been set even though his father had died three years earlier.
“I grew up in an environment of people who worshipped education. The passion to want to know, to strive for learning, became part of my DNA.”
It was that dogged drive to pursue education that saw Mahao hold the distinction of being the first Mosotho to hold a Doctor of Laws degree. He is also the first Mosotho to be conferred with a full title of Professor of Law.

Mahao says he became very active working in the underground structures of the ANC in Lesotho.
He would often travel to Maputo, Harare and Lusaka in support of the liberation struggle. Mahao declines to reveal what exactly he was engaged in, save to say they were “providing back-up to cadres” deployed Lesotho

On the domestic front, Mahao says they had as youths taken a position that while Chief Leabua Jonathan had adopted a progressive foreign policy supportive of the liberation struggle his government was a repressive and undemocratic regime.
He says Jonathan’s Basotho National Party (BNP), which had declared a state of emergency in 1970, “did not enjoy the support of the people and was undemocratic and repressive”.
“On the other hand, the main opposition Basotoland Congress Party (BCP) had abandoned its historical pan-Africanist orientation with a leadership located in Vlakpas in Pretoria.”
For them, the BCP had sold out to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

This realization soon gave birth to an alternative political formation led by National University of Lesotho lecturer, Joe Moitse, which later came to be known as the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD).

“The idea was that the party must be a principled organisation that would cut a niche in Lesotho politics. The party was to be the voice of reason among Basotho.”
Mahao quit the PFD in 2014. He has strong roots with the socialist movements of the 1960s and 70s.

“I grew up in a family that believed in socialism and equality. We were consciously made aware that resources were not evenly distributed and that there were some who were on the receiving end.” And so when socialism fell in 1989, it hit him so hard. This was a political system that he truly believed would work.
“That Socialism was collapsing right before my eyes sent me into an emotional tailspin. We had been indoctrinated to believe this system was going to conquer the world.”
With his clarity of thought and eloquence, it is no surprise that Mahao’s name has been bandied around as his new political home, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), discusses its succession plans. He says he is aware of the discussion within the structures of his ABC party and “is giving the matter very serious considerations”.

Abel Chapatarongo

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