‘MANTHABISENG Phohleli’s story reads like a fairy-tale which began 31 years ago when she accepted her then boyfriend Lebohang Phohleli’s proposal for marriage.
Like a typical romantic story, the then beautiful lass shelved her dream of going to law school and got married to her 21-year-old boyfriend. She was just 18 and had just completed her Form C at Basutoland High School (now Lesotho High School).
The first of five children, the stunning Ms Phohleli was born Nthoateng Setlaba in Thupa Likaka in Rothe on 24 November 1970.
“I enrolled at Lesotho High School immediately after passing my primary school certificate and studied there until I completed by secondary education,” Ms Phohleli told the Lesotho Times recently.
“At that time, I was deeply in love with my boyfriend (now husband) and we were already talking about marriage. Ours was true love,” the visibly smitten deputy minister of Health added.
“We got married on the 26th November 1988. I was so in love and could not wait any longer. I wanted to be my husband’s wife for the gentle and caring man he was. I felt he was going to take good care of me and indeed he is taking care of me despite the challenges of marriage.
“He is my best friend because we share almost everything. He tells me he even misses my nagging whenever I am away. He knows me so well and can easily see when I am unhappy,” says the 49-year-old who would clearly marry her husband all over again if given the chance.
While admitting that marriage has its complications and that she would have wanted to become a lawyer, she is quick to point out that she has no regrets. She is still madly in love with her prominent businessman husband who has interests in trucking and motor spares among many others.
Ms Phohleli had to complete her Cambridge Overseas School Certificate (COSC) at Maseru High School in 1990 as the school system does not allow married women and pregnant girls.
However, while she has lived her life blissfully since her relatively early marriage, she stands firm against early child marriage.
During her time in the Parliamentary Social Cluster Committee in 2012 and in 2015, she was actively involved in efforts to end child marriage. She has also served as the deputy chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum which gave her leverage to do more work on the regional front.
While at Maseru High School, Ms Phohleli’s passion of becoming a hotshot lawyer grew stronger and pictured herself strutting on the pavements of National University of Lesotho (NUL).
Moreover, Ms Phohleli did not foresee anything standing in the way of her career dreams because they had agreed with her husband that she would still pursue legal studies.
However, this remained a pipe dream as she started off running a taxi and bars business. In a few years, this grew into a bus business and then later a trucking business.
But while at it, she enrolled in various short courses among them Office Administration and Computer Literacy and later a Diploma in Office Administration. These enhanced her skills in running her family’s business.
Apart from her deputy ministerial post, a short stint as an administrator in an insurance company which she is a shareholder in, she has never worked for any other company.
Although Ms Phohleli was known as a shrewd businesswoman in her Rothe constituency, she joined the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) as a young person and secretly enjoyed politics in 1992.
At that time, it was difficult for any young person to stay out of politics because the BCP was fighting the late Prime Minister Chief Leabua Jonathan’s administration.
However, even after defecting to the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) in 1997 when the late Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle defected from the BCP and formed the LCD, she never saw herself having a career in politics.
But as fate would have it, in 2012 the Rothe Constituency begged her to represent them in parliament after the formation of the Democratic Congress when former premier broke away from the LCD.
“I was not too active in the party but I used to assist in a lot of logistics. So, when it was time to go for elections in 2012, the Rothe constituency asked me to be their candidate under the DC banner. I couldn’t say no,” Ms Phohleli said.
She added: “My husband would always come back home and encourage me to contest because he had realised how fond people were of me. I contested and won the elections in 2012. I competed again in 2015 under the DC flag and won the elections.”
It was in 2015 when Ms Phohleli made a name for herself successfully persuading the National Assembly to adopt a resolution calling for the government to step up efforts to end child marriages by reforming marriage laws and other policies.
The resolution was made after Ms Phohleli said cases of child marriage were escalating in the country and that then statistics from the Ministry of Social Development revealed that at least 1 742 girls were married before the age of 18, while at least 1 567 adolescents dropped out of school due to pregnancy.
Ms Phohleli urged the government to intensify efforts to end child marriages by reforming marriage laws and related legislation to ensure they are all in line with international and regional human rights instruments.
This drive to end child marriages, Ms Phohleli told the Lesotho Times that it was influenced by a personal experience of narrowly escaping abduction at the age of 15. A man from her village, whose job was to abduct young girls for other men, would rape the abducted girls and impregnate them before delivering them to their prospective husbands.
“I don’t know if those men knew but that is how he operated and that was bad. One day, the man attempted to abduct me but the man he wanted me to marry refused saying I was too young. I was saved by my small stature. It is that memory that always haunts. I could have been abducted and gotten married to some man and could have even been raped in the process.
“That is why chobeliso (abduction) remains a challenge. I don’t like child marriage for this reason. It is also worsened by the fact that my younger sister was also abducted but my parents went to fetch her. I got married on my own volition but because of these incidences I don’t condone child marriage,” Ms Phohleli said.
Having worked with her husband since 2001, she was now itching to have her own business. This is one of the reasons that made it easy for her to agree to contest in the 2012 elections.
She said the trust Rothe people bestowed on her made her resolve to advocate for their rights with more vigour.
“I must say I’m honoured and I thank the Rothe constituency every day for giving me the opportunity to represent them in parliament,” she said.
Now only a member of parliament through proportional representation after losing the immediate past elections on an Alliance of Democrats (AD) ticket.
The AD women league president says she was grateful to her husband for his support which has taken her this far.
Appointed Deputy Minister of Health in the current coalition government, Ms Phohleli said she is now giving other women a chance to work towards the eradication of child marriages.
The campaign to end child marriage is run by the Ministry of Social Development.
“For instance, the Minister of Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation Mahali Phamotse and the Minister of Social Development as well as the mandated parliamentary committees have been tasked to deal with this issue. I think it is only fair that I allow them to take over.
“I still condemn child marriages. It is a bad practice but there are people who are now supposed to work on it and it is only respectful to do that and create a conducive working environment. The same thing applies at the constituency now.
“I am no longer a legislator in Rothe and I must respect the incumbent. When I do my work as a minster and I want to inspect the clinic there, I have to inform him first because I feel like it is only fair and right. I still care for those people in Rothe but I have limits now because I’m not their legislator,” Ms Phohleli said.
In the Health ministry, Ms Phohleli now works closely with adolescents on sexuality education and co-partners Dream Organisation, a non-governmental organisation funded by the United States of America.
Although they work closely with Health minister Nkaku Kabi, they have agreed that she focusses on feminine and child-related programmes.
Ms Phohleli says her deputy minister post has also taught her to eat healthy and the importance of exercising.
“I now eat healthy. Although I sometimes skip sessions due to my busy schedule, I also exercise. I know that consuming large amounts of alcohol is bad so, while it is difficult because I love it, I have lowered my intake of red wine.”
Describing herself as a people’s person, Ms Phohleli says she remains in touch with the Rothe community and still ardently contributes in round table initiatives. She is still an active member of her community church.
Although Ms Phohleli missed out on becoming a lawyer, she said she is leaving her dream because she does what she loves and is fulfilled.
“I have always wanted to serve my community unconditionally and I feel like God gave me an opportunity to serve. I am honoured to serve the community and even when I was running my business, I was still very active in community development. I function well when I’m with other people rather than when I’m alone.
“I feel very comfortable in my space right now and I wonder how I was going to do if I had become a lawyer. I feel like an advocate although I did not go to law school,” Ms Phohleli concludes.
Ms Phohleli has two children, a girl Nthabiseng (29) and a boy, Mokhele (25). She also has grandchild Kananelo (three), the daughter of Nthabiseng.