NATIONAL University of Lesotho (NUL) Vice-Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao recently romped to victory in the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) elections to choose the deputy leader.
Prof Mahao polled an unassailable 693 votes to beat his nearest challenger, Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro who garnered 546 votes.
Others who took part in the highly anticipated contest were the former incumbent, Public Works and Transport Minister Prince Maliehe who garnered 245 votes and former party chairperson, Motlohi Maliehe, who brought up the rear with a meagre 97 votes.
It was a sweet victory for Prof Mahao who was only installed on the ballot paper at the 11th hour after Court of Appeal ruled against his disqualification by the former national executive committee (NEC).
Yesterday, the Lesotho Times (LT) Senior Reporter Pascalinah Kabi interviewed Prof Mahao who shared his thoughts on the bruising electoral contest and the need to close ranks and reunite the party so that it fulfils its electoral mandate. Below are the excerpts for the interview.
LT: You and your team capped a long and protracted legal battle by winning the deputy leader’s contest at the recent ABC’s NEC elections. What were your experiences of the journey and what kept you going even when there was so much opposition to your candidature?
Prof Mahao: It is true that it was challenging and also exciting experience and I think the resilience drew from the support that people were giving us wherever we went. And that kept us going. In all the constituencies that we traversed, there was only one where there was a bit of a challenge from the party structure that was there. The structure tried to be hostile but the audience stepped in and said “no ways, we are happy with the message” and so it became very clear to us that the mass of our people was ready to receive our message.
Ours was a positive message that addressed the systemic and structural issues that affect the lives of our people. Unlike other campaign groups, wherever we went we never asked people to switch off their phones and put them somewhere else. We told people to record whatever they wanted to record because we were not there to talk about people. We focused on the systems and the structures of the party and the reception was overwhelmingly supportive. In the end we found it very difficult to honour invitations from the different structures of the organisation to speak.
So, from that, we realised that we had stepped into an arena that was welcoming and ready for us and we appreciated that ours was the timing.
LT: Now that you will be inaugurated as a new national executive committee, what are you bringing to the table to ensure that you work together with everyone, eliminate factionalism and ensure that the party continues on the growth trajectory?
Prof Mahao: I will be restrained about saying what my thoughts are for now because we are now on a different landscape. We now have to begin to talk as a collective so you first of all have to sell your ideas to the team, if they get accepted, they now become the team outlook for the future.
But let me tell you that the most important thing after a very bruising battle is that we have been challenged to reunify the party. We have to ensure that the unity and oneness of the party is forged but the one thing that one is very grateful about is that the way the members of the party have determined their national executive committee has brought us together. You have people in there who are coming from all of the competing slates and that says that the party members desire and want a unified party. They are instructing us to operate as a unified and cohesive team.
We cannot let them down. We just have to consolidate that unity and reposition the ABC as an effective machine ready to play its role. A good thing is that we still have three years before the general elections and so these elections came at the right time giving us plenty of time to sort our challenges out and get ready for 2022. Reunifying the party, sorting out the little misunderstandings and challenges that cropped up is very important and for now that should be our main focus. We also need the support of the outgoing national executive committee. I know that people were angry but I am not the sort of person who focuses on the individuals. I focus on systems and structures and that has always been my theme.
I always felt that people in leadership positions were not matching our expectations because they were failing as individuals and because the structures and systems in the party were the main challenge.
That is one of the things that we would have to look into going forward and to see how we can ensure that the structures within the party have the capacity to service the needs of the members of the party as big as the ABC.
We need the outgoing committee to be on our side. Institutional memory is always very important when you forge ahead. They say you look backwards in order to move ahead. Short of doing that, you will not know whether or not you are on a firm ground.
LT: In other words, you are extending an olive branch to your ABC colleagues who opposed your candidature?
Prof Mahao: Absolutely. To all the competing groups because we need them. Fortunately, I received a phone call from Dr Majoro on Monday morning congratulating me and I did say to him we will need to meet and knock heads and determine how we forge forward together. I also received a short messaging service (SMS) from Mr Motlohi Maliehe and I assured him that they all have a role to play. All things being equal, we are going to open the spaces within the ABC and ensure that everyone is listened to so that this becomes truly a party of the people. Those people who have experience and talents have a huge contribution to make in the party as it forges ahead.
LT: You were quoted in the local media accusing Dr Majoro of being the main conspirator behind your challenges in the run up to the elective conference. How does Dr Majoro come into the mix because he was never in the forefront of people attacking you?
Prof Mahao: Why do you want to go back there? I will tell you this, the whole contrived, artificial thing about my disqualification was part and parcel of an attempt to deliver technical knockout on somebody who was seen to be very competitive. It was just contrived. Think of it this way, if people were not concerned about my competitiveness, would they have even bothered whether I qualified or not?
They would have simply said let him run and we will overrun him. So, a big conspiracy was contrived where they said, ‘let us knock him out completely’ and that is not democratic. It is a kind of culture that we must banish. The minimum requirements (to contest the ABC elections) are there laid out in the constitution and everyone has to meet them. Once the minimum requirements have been met, let people compete. It is the voters who will determine whether or not they (candidates) are worth voting for. The long and short of it is that we have prevailed, notwithstanding the boulders and mountains that had been put on our way. It is now time for us to reach out to every one of them to say ‘okay, you tested the waters and now that it has not worked, we reach out to you’.
The philosophy of Ubuntu is that you never kick a man when he is on the ground, instead extend your hand, hold him up to find his feet. As far as I am concerned, all of those things that transpired up till last Saturday when I was allowed to be on the ballot paper are now water under the bridge. I am not regretting that they (my rivals) did because what they exposed for everyone to see is that we are very resilient and we can still sail whatever the turbulences are. So instead of us lamenting what happened, we are gratified because what they did proved our worth.
LT: Some say that you are a novice, a newcomer in politics. What is your comment on that?
Prof Mahao: People could say I am a newcomer in the ABC and that is true I am just over three years in the party but there are very few who have had as long a history as I have had in political activism. Let us take it this way and ask, what does the outcome of the elections tell you? It says that the mass of our people is looking for fresh ideas and they have said it is people like Mahao and others who we believe have fresh ideas to inject to give more energy to the party.
It is not a sin to be a newcomer, it may be very well what the people are looking for.
LT: One school of thought suggests that the bruising events that came your way during the build-up to the elections were not necessarily engineered by the ABC leader Thomas Thabane. It is said that you are not be on good terms with the First Lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane and that could have been the source of your challenges then. Is there any truth in such claims?
Prof Mahao: I do not know that. I have never met the First Lady. I would not know what she would have against me and so if there is such a perception, I do not know where it comes from. I also do not know what roles she plays in the party, so I would be surprised. I have never had any issues with the leader (Dr Thabane). In fact, he is the one who phoned when he was (in exile) in Ficksburg and encouraged me to raise my profile of political activism. But since he became prime minister, I have only met him once and that was when I went to meet him about the affairs of the university. The meeting was very warm and encouraging as always, so I do not think he has a problem with me either.
People who were not at the conference might not know that when there was standoff in the conference that lasted a couple of hours as to whether or not my name should be on the ballot paper, he (Dr Thabane) eventually climbed up to the podium, read the court order and said let us have the man run in the elections. He also mentioned my name in a very conciliatory tone, so my sense is that the perceived problems are artificially engineered and that is why I am very optimistic that they will be overcome because they are not problems.
The apparent problems were created maybe as a campaign strategy but then the campaigns are behind us and some of those efforts will just be part of the past that we have traversed.
LT: You were very vocal against a blanket amnesty being given to all those who were involved in human rights violations. Now that you are senior ABC member, there are perceptions that some senior government officials in the coalition like the Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki who advocated for blanket amnesty may not be comfortable working with you. What is your response to such perceptions?
Prof Mahao: I am not sure but I think I have heard him speak publicly, pulling back from that position. But yes, there would be some people who are not comfortable with me but it is those commitments that the (ABC) party made before the 2017 elections which have not been followed through with adequate resolve that has generated a certain degree of disgruntlement in the mass of our people. We need to reconnect with the people by honouring what we committed to do. I have always said the fate of this country should not be about elite deals, it should be about moving forward hand in hand with the mass of our people embracing their wishes and aspirations. That is very key in politics.
So, I am of the view that if there are different positions around some of those issues, we should be able to talk about them but at the end of the day what counts is what the electorate says we should do.
LT: Your brother Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao was appointed commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and he was later assassinated. You also faced several challenges with your ABC candidature. Did you at any point feel that history was repeating itself with the Mahao family?
Prof Mahao: It possibly is but, in the family, we are always very optimistic about the future. That is how we were brought up, walking on the narrow and straight path with all of its challenges.
And we know that if you walk on the straight path, you are likely to encounter far more challenges than those who are not firm on issues of principle. That young man (Lt-Gen Mahao) was a source of inspiration even for myself. I am 11 years older than him but whenever we exchanged ideas, I always admired the way he was very principled, ethical and exuding charisma.
So, when the people approached me and say can you do this (standing in the ABC elections) for us, I did think of his fate and I am very much aware even today that there is danger hoovering. I longer have the liberties of the ordinary citizen to move around as I would enjoy my freedom but on the other hand, this is a task that my people want to me to fulfil. Should I flinch, should I embrace it and say yes there are risks and there are going to be threats? After applying my mind, I chose the latter (standing in the ABC elections).
LT: Where did you get the courage to go ahead with the task knowing there is danger involved?
Prof Mahao: History is about making hard choices. Human history has developed because there were people who bore the risks and in the course of that, many of them perished. But already their contributions made history to move from one level to the other. That is just how it works. Where risks are not undertaken, the nation is actually bogged to a standstill. So, we have to be courageous enough to embrace risks because they make society to move forward.
LT: When are you resigning from NUL?
Prof Mahao: Why should I? I have kept quiet for the last two months. People who do not know anything about the university are peddling stories that Mahao is in breach of the law. I am a stickler for the rule of law and I would not do anything unlawful. The first thing I ask myself before acting is where I stand with respect to the law?
Now there is no law that says that one cannot be a political activist and not serve the university at the same time. What the people who have been peddling this story are referring to is a law that was passed in 2002 and I happen to know about it because I know where it came from but the parliament of Lesotho passed a law in 2012 that repealed that clause and so there is absolutely no law that says you cannot participate in politics and remain a staff member of the university. This is why we have had many activists here at the university in the last few years. They have held positions in political parties and we could not do anything about them because there is no law that says they should not.
LT: But you informed the NUL council three weeks ago that you might leave earlier before your contract expires.
Prof Mahao: I want to leave it (the decision about my contract) in the capable hands of the university council. My contract expires at the end of November 2019 but the council can exercise its discretion (as to when I can leave). I am ready for that but the ball is in the hands of the council, not mine. I am fine and I am actually enjoying this job at the university. We have made our efforts in the last four years and I think they have paid off and so I am not by any means running away particularly because the university is going to face what I call an Armageddon of financial challenges this year. If you are a leader and you jump ship, you are likely to send a wrong message that the university is not going to hold it together. I deliberately decided to stay put but I also avail myself to the discretion of our council.
This is a very delicate environment and if people were looking to you to steady the ship and you cannot just quit in an uncoordinated fashion. We have people at the university who hold very scarce qualifications and can knock at any door and the doors will open globally for them. So (if you just quit in an uncoordinated fashion) you might experience a hemorrhage of other people also leaving. We have worked very hard to build this university to have this calibre of people and so you do not want to leave in a manner that will sink the university back to where it was four years ago.
When I came into office there were colleagues who were roaming the streets of Maseru with PhD qualifications and no jobs after leaving this university. We made an effort and some of them came back to the university and we do not want to experience that again. So, it is a very delicate transition that must be handled very delicately so that it does not send the university back into a tailspin.
LT: What are your thoughts about Lesotho’s judiciary system, drawing from the immediate court cases involving your legitimacy to stand for ABC elections? Is it really captured by the executive as some people allege?
Prof Mahao: I will not talk about the judiciary being captured because of my position as an academic, analyst and also because of my experience. Some years ago, when I was in South Africa, I was appointed by the South African government to serve in a statutory body called The South African Judicial Institute chaired by the Chief Justice and (SADC facilitator to Lesotho) Justice Dikgang Moseneke was the deputy chair. The role of that body was to assist in the development of the judiciary. We drew up the issues of training to empower the judiciary, to help the judiciary grow not just in terms of numbers but in terms of its intellectual capacity.
Now, the problem in Lesotho again is that of structures and systems. We have not put in place systems and structures that assist our people to grow. Even at the university, an institution of excellence, we did not have a tradition that enabled our people to grow and become eminent academics. That is why you would have somebody work here 30 to 40 years and retire as a senior lecturer at most. Very few of them developed to the level of professorship. When we came, we put in the structures and now people are climbing the ladders and they are realising their full potential.
We have not invested in developing our institutions and as a result their level of performance leaves a lot to be desired. The judiciary is a visible example of that. If you went into those courts and you watched the intellectual zest of the gentleman who was sitting in the court of appeal, you could see that this is a different breed of people but they are trained from the same schools as our own folks.
The difference is that those people must have operated from within systems that allowed them to grow and develop. You could actually see that these people were in control, they guided the jurisprudence that was the subject of the discussions in the courtroom. You do not find much of that in our own courts and I do not believe that those men and women who man our judiciary have an inferior DNA. I think as a country we have not done our part to develop our institutions and it is across the board. The public service underperforms and it is not because Basotho women give birth to inferior children. It is because the systems do not assist people to grow.
The issue that is emerging politically is where there is an entrenched fear of people who have brains and can make meaningful contributions. This fear is part and parcel of an underdeveloped landscape and that is where I locate the challenges that we faced in this campaign. It is not because people hate me, I can assure you that I do not have enemies but I think coming into that (political) space makes some people feel threatened. It is precisely because they have decided that this is a playing field for a certain calibre of people but we meant to change that mindset. And we found that our people are ready for a new kind of thinking about what the (political) landscape should be.