Madam boss

Madam boss

MASERU – THEY are little “match-box” houses in White City, a suburb in Maseru where poverty is neatly juxtaposed with affluence. The “match-box” houses have come to symbolise the pathetic living conditions of Lesotho’s police officers. The houses, which are in various stages of decay, have no running water. They also have no flashing toilets. Police officers and their families, must resort to the use of toilets commonly referred to as VIPs in what should be the ultimate assault on their personal dignity. That acronym, VIPs, has nothing to do with being “very important people”; it is actually a misnomer referring to Ventilated Improved Pit latrines.

The use of the VIPs is a shocking development in a city that is trying to play catch-up with the rest of the world. The critics say the pit latrines are a constant reminder of the government’s failure to provide decent services to its own people. That is not a nice sight, says Lesotho’s police minister Mampho Mokhele. Mokhele, who served as a police officer for 37 years before she was appointed a minister during the first coalition government in 2013 by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, should know better. She too stayed in those houses as a fresh-faced recruit when she joined the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) in 1976. She was only 18.

“Those houses have not changed,” she says. “They are still in that same deplorable state. They have no showers, no toilets.” Mokhele says when she arrived in White City, police officers were using the even much loathed bucket system. The Maseru municipality would then collect the waste for disposal. Forty-two years after she joined the police, Mokhele says the conditions of service for the police have still not changed. “I realised they are still staying in the same dilapidated houses and I had to do something,” she says. She says during her 37-year stint within the LMPS, she realised that the police were a forgotten lot and that “they were lagging behind in terms of resources and their welfare”.

“No one was fighting for their cause in Parliament, no one was fighting from their corner,” she says. That is how Mokhele found herself being drawn into politics – to fight for change for the downtrodden in the police service. Now as Minister of Police, Mokhele, with almost missionary zeal, appears determined to reverse the rot. She says her goal is to bring the smiles back on the faces of the police who for so long have felt neglected by previous administrations. The lack of modern ablution facilities for the police is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the failure of the government to look after its own. Mokhele says her colleagues within Cabinet appreciate the extent of the challenges confronting her ministry and are very supportive.

“They see for themselves the extent to which the police ministry is suffering,” she says. “Just look at the Maseru Central Police Station, it is old and worn out.” She says the ministry has already begun an ambitious programme to revamp police stations around the country and build modern houses for the police. The first 72 houses will be built in Mafeteng with new police stations being built in Butha-Buthe, Mohale’s Hoek and Mafeteng. All new police stations will have modern ablution facilities. Mokhele says she is still pained that Lesotho still uses the “bucket system” for detainees. “I want to quickly change that while I am still minister,” she says.

By the end of the year, the government would have upgraded the Tšakholo Police Post, the Semonkong Police Post and the Mohalinyane and Simeone police posts. That is a lot of work. Yet Mokhele says she does not in any way feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. In fact, she thinks she is up for it.
“For the past 37 years, I have been with the police and I know what they need and I think I can do the job,” she says. Yet, Mokhele does not underestimate the enormity of the task at hand if she is to help modernise the police into a world-class unit. She says the LMPS needs a total of 230 vehicles to ensure every police station and every police post has at least one vehicle. “We only have 120 cars at present. The result is that we sometimes fail to attend to emergency reports from the communities.”

Mokhele says the budget allocated to her ministry is so minuscule that it can hardly cover all her needs. She cannot even afford to ensure police officers have at least two pairs of uniforms to allow for emergencies. “I expected to receive M8 million during the budget so that the police could get a pair of uniform, boots and overalls. However, I only got M2 million. “That makes it difficult for the police especially during the rainy season. How do they come to work when their uniform is wet?”

“And look at how worn out their uniform is.” It would be easy to think that Mokhele would fit in with the macho image associated with Lesotho’s police, a police service that is often accused of using brute force during its policing operations. Mokhele instead remains a motherly figure, both in outlook and speech. In fact, she speaks of police officers as her children, suggesting a filial and unbreakable bond with her subordinates. And so when Mokalekale Khetheng was brutally murdered and secretly buried like a pauper by his own colleagues, Mokhele says she was hurt to the core. Khetheng, a junior police officer, disappeared without trace at a police station in Hlotse in March 2015. His decomposed body was exhumed from a cemetery in Maseru eight months later.

At least five senior police officers are in detention at Maseru Maximum Security Prison and have been charged with his death. “It was a very painful moment to realise that some of my children had killed one of their own and had to be taken to court,” she says. “It was very painful.” Mokhele says Khetheng was at one point her junior when she was stationed in Butha-Buthe. She says one of the biggest problems she found when she was appointed police minister was the deeply entrenched polarisation within the police based on political party affiliation. “The police were split into two based on party politics and some of them were used by politicians. Even in the Khetheng case, it was clear that politics had played a part,” she says. “We are working very hard to ensure that we depoliticise the police. It is not an easy task but we are trying our best.”

Yet try as she may, there is no denying that the LMPS is battling a serious public relations nightmare. Critics say in its efforts to enforce the law, the police often cross the line by resorting to brutal policing methods, including torture. Mokhele says while there is substance in some of the allegations, she is working very hard to ensure “the police move away from such practices”. She also blames the lack of professionalism within the police in investigating cases. She cites the lack of resources as the police’s biggest impediment in doing their work. Mokhele also thinks politicians are to blame for some of the excesses with the police being used “to lock up people in cells even where they have no cases to answer”.

“Through such malicious arrests, the police end up violating the people’s basic human rights.” That too must change, she says. The key lies in investing in training for the police so that they can fulfil their mandate properly. A team from the regional bloc, SADC, is currently in Lesotho “training our police on scientific processes to deal with high profile cases”. She says another team of police officers was set to leave for China last month-end for further training. Mokhele says Basotho should learn to live in peace in spite of their political differences.

“The fact that we have political differences should not mean we should fight against one another. But those who committed crimes should be prosecuted in courts of law.” Mokhele was born on December 25, 1957 to a father who was a right-handman to the local chief. She says she fell in love with the police after she saw the “Army of Peace”, a militia group set up by Chief Leabua Jonathan in the 1960s to help with low-level policing duties in the villages. Mokhele joined the police in 1976.

Abel Chapatarongo

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