- “I feel betrayed by Thabane, scarred for life,”
- vows to remain in exile as long as PM is in power
FRIENDSHIP, betrayal, murder, and uncertainty. These are the time-tested ingredients for a blockbuster Hollywood movie but in a classic case of real-life imitating fiction, the same recipe makes up the story of Thato Sibolla’s tragic relationship with the family of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
Ms Sibolla was a long-time friend of Dr Thabane’s late former wife, Lipolelo. But on a wintry night of 14 June 2017, Lipolelo fell silent and her laughter never again to punctuate their hearty conversations. Ms Sibolla slumped on her car seat, bleeding profusely from the gunshots she sustained in the shooting incident.
This after an unknown assassin peppered their car with bullets as they were about to drive into Lipolelo’s home in Ha Masana, Maseru. Apart from photographs and memories, Ms Sibolla only has physical and psychological scars to show for almost three decades of friendship with Lipolelo.
“Everything happened in a flash. Memories of that day are still very vivid in my mind as I stared death in the face,” Ms Sibolla told the Lesotho Times from her new base in South Africa.
“The pain is like a fog which refuses to clear and forever lingers in the depths of my mind. Every day I take a careful look at my scars and I know I am lucky to be alive. I will take my scars with me to the grave and they will remain a constant reminder of what I have been through.
“I have 16 stiches on my stomach after my internal organs were operated on and I have a chronic pain in my feet due to the spine nerves injury from a bullet and these will forever remind me of God’s love despite my weaknesses as a human being.
“My scars don’t define me but they tell the story that I’m a survivor on the run for dear life. I am stronger than my scars but each time the issue of the murder case is brought up, I get chills down my spine and feel like my wounds are being opened all over again. I feel sick.”
At this reporter’s prodding for more details, there is a momentary silence before her voice is heard again on the line. She says it is best not to say more about that fateful night for fear of jeopardising ongoing investigations and the murder case that is already before the courts of law.
First Lady ’Maesaiah Thabane was last Wednesday charged with the murder of Lipolelo. She was also charged with the attempted murder of Ms Sibolla who was travelling in the same vehicle with Lipolelo when she was gunned down in cold blood on the night of 14 June 2017. Ms Sibolla sustained some injuries in the incident which occurred just two days before Dr Thabane’s inauguration for his second stint as premier.
Shortly after being charged and remanded in custody by Maseru Magistrate, Nthabiseng Moopisa, Ms Thabane was controversially granted bail a few hours later by Justice Mahase. According to authoritative judicial sources, the bail application was supposed to have been heard by the judge on call for bail applications and other urgent applications as per practice. That judge on call last week was Justice Keketso Moahloli, not Justice Mahase.
While lawyers and others argue on the legality and propriety of the granting of the bail, for Ms Sibolla, the issue is way deeper than just arguments about legal niceties- it is a matter of life and death. It is something that has caused her to flee Lesotho in fear for her life.
Overwhelmed by fear she skipped the country and first sought asylum in Botswana before turning to neighbouring South Africa. She however, refuses to say why she had a change of heart and opted for South Africa.
“Everything about the case did not add up,” she says of Ms Thabane’s bail decision.
“The confirmation by the police that someone as powerful as the First Lady was the suspect didn’t sit well with me. Worse still is the fact that she was released (on bail).
“I called the investigation team which was also in the dark until the case had gone to court. Nothing added up and nothing was done to allay my fears. I was not even given the courtesy of being properly informed so that I could make my own preparations for my safety since the state had not given me any protection.”
She said she was now living in fear after Ms Thabane was granted bail.
“The pain of betrayal by the justice system is that it doesn’t only break your heart, but is also darkens your soul. My life has completely changed and so have my sleeping patterns as I get constant nightmares. I am traumatised and no counsellor can help me pick up the pieces and make me whole again.”
But life was not always this bleak. Ms Sibolla and Lipolelo’s was a friendship built up over three decades since they first met in the early 1990s. From that time onwards the two women were joined at the hip and virtually inseparable as they were firmly bound together by their own unique chords of friendship.
Ms Sibolla recalled a time when she was welcome to the home of the Thabanes- a time when Dr Thabane and Lipolelo were the “happiest couple in the world”.
“We were very close. In fact, I was very close to her whole family. This was before the current wife (’Maesaiah) came into Ntate Tom’s life and everything changed.
“Ntate Thabane and his wife (Lipolelo) were the happiest couple I had ever known hence I always loved hanging out with them. Though I know that all good things come to an end, I must say I never saw this one coming. Even after their separation, everyone who knew them could tell that they still loved and cared for one another,” Sibolla says.
Dr Thabane became a different person after his marriage to ’Maesaiah, she says. In the aftermath of ’Maesaiah’s successful bail application, she says she will not be returning to Lesotho anytime soon. She will not return “as long as Dr Thabane and his wife are still in power and still have ample access to state resources”.
“Life away from home is so dull and painful but it can’t be worse than living in fear of the unknown at home. I know that we are all going to die one day but there is nothing as scary as knowing that one day you might just be killed in cold blood.
“Each passing day I fear for my family but my heart mostly goes out to my mother. She is elderly and sickly and unable to take care of herself. It hits me hard and pains me in a way I can’t express. I feel lost and I feel like I have abandoned her.
“I just feel betrayed (by Dr Thabane) and would rather we save (talking about) this for a later date. You have just opened my wounds again. This is another emotional issue, some things are better left unsaid,” Ms Sibolla says.
Ms Sibolla has since joined with Dr Thabane’s grandson and namesake, Thomas Thabane, and two others in filing a Court of Appeal application challenging Justice Mahase’s decision to grant ’Maesaiah bail.
Two days after ’Maesaiah’s release on bail, South Africa’s Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, called on the Lesotho government to ensure that witnesses in the Lipolelo murder case like Ms Sibolla are given adequate protection.
Ms Mapisa-Nqakula said the Southern African Development Community (SADC) “can’t be tasked with providing something that must be provided by a sovereign government”.
“If there are witnesses to this kind of case then the country must take responsibility for protecting those witnesses.
“It can’t be that for every little small (thing) you push the region to take responsibility. The region is involved in bigger stuff…,” Ms Mapisa-Nqakula said.
Commenting on Ms Mapisa-Nqakula’s remarks, Ms Sibolla says “It would really feel awkward to be given protection by the state if the state is still run by the husband of the suspect who is out on an almost free bail (of M1000) and still has access to state resources”.
Meanwhile, the President of the Law Society of Lesotho, Tekane Maqakachane, has bemoaned the state’s failure to offer protection to state witnesses, saying this increased their chances of being killed by suspects.
“The failure to afford protection puts witnesses at risk of being killed by those seeking to avoid prosecution. When a witness is killed, there will never be closure to a case and the courts also lose legitimacy.
“Witness protection laws are lacking in Lesotho…but each and every witness is entitled to protection. That’s why suspects are barred from interfering with witnesses each time bail is granted,” said Adv Maqakachane.
His sentiments are echoed by another lawyer, Adv Napo Mafaesa, who says “the commissioner of police has a responsibility to give protection to a witness if a person has genuine fears of their life being in danger”.