LESOTHO’s ambassador to Ireland, S’khulumi Ntsoaole (SN), has been a busy man since his appointment in May 2018. The former minister of Trade and Industry is not only working hard to find investments and other opportunities for Lesotho but also trying hard to organise Basotho living in Ireland to ensure that they play a meaningful role in stimulating the country’s economy.
In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) senior reporter Pascalinah Kabi speaks to Mr Ntsoaole who is currently in the country on holiday
LT: Given that like Lesotho, Ireland was once a British colony, what is it that they have done in terms of economic growth and political stability that Lesotho is failing to do seeing that our country is still underdeveloped?
SN: Well, it is not really the issue of being left behind because their first 50 years was difficult for them. They experienced serious problems before they successfully established themselves. They removed some small hindrances like personalities in their way and concentrated more on principles. They are governed more by what they want to achieve together as a country. Their political indifferences are based on “I can do this better than you” not “I don’t like you” or “I am a national and you are a congress”.
They do not fight without any tangible principle that this is what they want to achieve as a state. The Irish have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve as a country and they have worked hard to achieve it. They have set clear goals for themselves in terms of health, education and every other sector. Their politicking is on those set goals, not on who and what individual party wants to achieve.
When they fight, they fight over principles or one’s failure to deliver on their mandate, the same way the English are fighting now over the Brexit, it is not about what Johnson says or the colour of his skin, it is about the Brexit. They are fighting over whether or not they should go ahead with or without the deal. The argument is just that simple. They put the interests of the people ahead of their individual aspirations. I wish we could adopt the same principles here in Lesotho; that we could fight over the national issues not personalities.
LT: What must Lesotho do to emulate this principle?
SN: By recognising the national issues that we must all tackle. We must have a checklist to track all the national issues that we have addressed and those that are lagging behind and fight over such. We must come up with solutions for those issues that we have failed to address and ensure that our politics concentrate on the implementation of the mandate that we drew from the masses.
LT: The conflicts between the nationalists and the congress have been long drawn and have often left the country’s development stagnant. Do you think this country’s politicians will ever get to a point where they will fight on principles and not the artificial national and congress ideologies?
SN: I think we are getting there. I think the young people of Lesotho are beginning to become aware of those artificial ideological fights and they articulate them eloquently on social media. Some of them are brave and wise enough to start debating national issues. Yes, there are some who are still hanging onto the national and congress ideologies but there are some who are now enlightened. They have released that national and congress politics only take the country backwards. They talk about developmental politics, they discuss politics that involve commercial agriculture, job creation and empowering the private sector.
In fact, I am personally interested on the empowerment of the private sector because a vibrant private sector will take a lot of weight away from the government in terms of job creation. More people will be absorbed by the private sector and the government will be left to concentrate on other important national issues. The most important thing is for our economy to concentrate on empowering the private sector. Our private sector is still lacking and we need to drastically improve it. We need to improve people’s standard of living and improve consumer groups by creating jobs through commercial farming.
We have land and we can use it to our own advantage. We can venture into a massive potato project because our soil is fertile for potatoes, other vegetables and fruits. We have a lot of things that we can learn from abroad but we are just relaxed.
Secondly, in as much as our country has fertile soils and other natural resources like water, we are not managing them well. We have not zoned our country properly. We do not have a land properly earmarked out for farming and the other for villages or building houses.
We must plan for the next 100 years, we must plan the Lesotho we want – what type of towns do we want, what type of villages, what communities or suburbs do we want in the next 100 years? Would we still be building houses everywhere in the next 100 years, unplanned as they are? Where are we going to have proper rangelands and farming, is farming going to be done in the north or south? How do we zone-in regions earmarked for mining only? Where are we going to have an industrial zone and why are we not earmarking such regions for industries and mining? These are tough questions that we must ask ourselves.
Making services like electricity accessible to all is expensive because we have small villages of five houses far apart from each. Access to electricity would have been cheaper if we had residents in one zone, well-coordinated and planned. It is difficult to do that (mapping) now but we can still do it by slowly introducing this concept until people understand that they can live in town centres where they can easily access education, water, electricity, health and all other services. Currently, it is difficult for the government to ensure that each individual has access to services because residential areas are far stretched. People complain that in this age they still carry dead bodies on horseback yet they have built houses in the valleys, where it is extremely expensive to construct roads.
Our country is small but its resources are stretched because villages are scattered, every valley and every hill has a village demanding access to electricity, clean water, school facilities and clinics. However, you cannot afford that because it is expensive. So, we must be thinking of zoning. These are the issues that we should politic about and this is what the Irish are debating.
They are no longer talking about “I don’t like this person because of her maternal background or this and that”. They took 50 years doing what we are doing (fighting over petty politics) but they used the other 50 years developing their country. This is their 100th year since independence and I have faith that Lesotho can move forward only if we can have people of sober minds. Basotho need to stop fighting over petty things.
LT: What have you been doing to market the country in Ireland?
SN: Well, from the beginning the Irish people have been always been here (for Lesotho) since our independence. They opened a formal embassy in Lesotho in 1975 and started pumping money into Lesotho in various ways among them the Thaba-Putsoa Pony Track, institutions like the Centre for Accounting Studies (CAS) and many other projects. So, our friendship comes a long way and I have since realised that the Irish have passion for Lesotho.
Between January and February this year, there were about 100 Irish people here in the country, running around helping Basotho. Those were rallied by our embassy in Dublin, we worked with them and some of them are still students who have taken a gap year before they complete their high school education. This is part of an initiative by Portmarnock Community School to Irish students to come to Lesotho for them to experience Africa and assist vulnerable people. The students are accompanied by their parents and technical staff from the Fingal County Council. The visits help them appreciate the world better and they will be excited when they return to Ireland and ready to take their country forward.
The Fingal County Council has a memorandum of understanding with our Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy to assist the country with a project or exercise called Map Lesotho. They have completed that mapping and Lesotho is now the only world mapped country in Africa. They have done everything that I have talked about in terms of zoning the country and all that is needed now is for the ministry to implement Map Lesotho. So, we are at that stage where a national special office has to be created at the ministry to ensure that Map Lesotho is fully implemented. All the infrastructure is there right now for this project.
Besides this, the Irish have trained two ladies from the Local Government ministry, Refiloe Leotla and Matšeliso Thobei. They recently graduated with Masters’ Degrees in Spatial Planning. Ms Thobei went on to win an award for the Best International Planner. There are three more ladies who are pursuing their Masters’ Degrees in Spatial Planning. I see a lot of interest shown by the Irish in the development of Lesotho; they want to see this country flourish. They want to see Lesotho planning ahead and zoning its regions.
LT: Do you think Lesotho is fertile enough to absorb assistance from the Irish and ensure that it makes meaningful impact on its development or is it going to be a long road ahead?
SN: I am not so certain about that but I have been discussing with the Local Government minister (Litšoane Litšoane), his Principal Secretary (Khothatso Tšooana), the Finance minister (Moeketsi Majoro) and other ministers who have been impressed with this project. The ministers and other senior government officials have attended meetings and were impressed by the exhibitions. They want to get into the implementation stage but I do not know how far they are now. The Irish are still following it up, the exhibition was in February this year. The Irish were also here in June 2019 and I think they are yet to come again in the future. A consultant will be based in Lesotho during the implementation stage.
LT: Many Basotho have perceptions that people posted in foreign missions lead luxurious lifestyles. They also think that ambassadors are not doing anything to help improve the country’s economy. Do you have a strategy to interact with ordinary Basotho on your engagements in Dublin?
SN: Yes, we engage the people via social media platforms like Facebook. I also engage the people on my personal social media sites. People comment on the posts and engage with us. However, apart from the Map Lesotho project, we have also made it possible for Basotho farmers to embark on a potato farming study tour in Ireland.
Two members of the Potato Lesotho Association (PLA) were recently trained by Ireland’s The Country Crest on potato farming. They spent a week in Ireland. Although the Irish’s soil is not as fertile as that of Lesotho, their potatoes are sold all over Europe. They sell potatoes as far as Israel.
Apart from that, we invited small and medium enterprises specialising in animal skin products to Ireland. They have gone there twice to exhibit their products and deliver their consignments. We are trying to connect them with Irish businesses to establish a permanent market that side. We have also established the Business Ireland Southern African (BISA), an entity based in Johannesburg but has opened a Maseru chapter. This is meant to connect Irish business people with their Basotho counterparts. We mostly want young people venturing into businesses to take advantage of this so that they can learn and grow their businesses. I do not know what the current state of affairs is because they have their own local committee here. However, I think it should work because it is being coordinated from Johannesburg.
Unlike maize whose nutritious value is slim, potatoes are full of nutrients. Potatoes do not need much water, so they can still grow even in dry climatic conditions. Ireland has a lot of water because it rains year-round and that frustrate them. They wish their country was dry but nature says it otherwise. They are unable to plant anything during rainy days; they wait for the rains to subside before they can plant anything but they still produce a lot of potatoes. This is a crop that has all nutrients. We can actually fight hunger and stunting among children by simply eating potatoes.
LT: Are you still passionate about politics and do you plan to contest in elections in future?
SN: Of course, I am a politician and unfortunately you cannot get out of politics once you have started. I am an ambassador now and contesting in elections will probably depend on when my tour of duty ends. However, if elections come before my tour ends, I will give my colleagues a chance to stand in elections while I continue to work for my government. I am on a three-year contract and my tour ends in 2022.
While my mission in Ireland is to find investment opportunities for Lesotho, investors want to invest their money where there is a stability, where their investment security is guaranteed. However, there is hope that it will happen one day. My mission is to also find other opportunities like businesses for Basotho.
We have also organised Basotho diaspora in Ireland. We know their whereabouts and they are well organised. They recently met in my official residential home in Ireland, discussing plans to celebrate Lesotho’s independence that side. We bring them together, tell them that this is their embassy, that we do not care how they left the country because some are political refugees. We are all Basotho and the embassy is there to serve their interests.
It is important to keep in touch with all of them because we are the first port of call when they fall sick. Some are still hiding from us but we are trying to find them slowly and we are bringing them home to say the embassy is your home, the ambassador’s residency is your home and this is your Lesotho.
We are also trying to encourage the diaspora to invest back home to grow their country’s economy. Some countries train their citizens and send them out so that they bring back remittances. We are also looking at ways of improving tourism between the two countries. The Irish want Basotho to visit Ireland and we are trying to see how best we can work around this. They also want Basotho to work in their hospitality sector and learn on the job.
Nursing is also be a lucrative field for Basotho. The Irish have a lot of old people and their families want to hire nurses to look after them. They want Basotho who can speak English. Even hospitals want nurses but we have to find ways in which they will legally leave the country on proper arrangements. The Irish are very careful on the issue of human trafficking and we will need to ensure that people who go to Ireland are well vetted.
LT: We currently do not have an Irish Embassy after the mission left a few years ago. What are you doing to convince them to come back?
SN: Well I think the Irish are trying to have as many embassies as possible all over the world. They are influencing the world in so many areas. They are international peace keepers. They have got a strong army but they use their strong army for peacekeeping and nothing else. So, they are there in Mediterranean, they are there in Africa. Wherever there is trouble the Irish will be there to assist with medical services, counselling and other necessities.
However, I doubt if they will open an embassy in Maseru because they think Pretoria is very close. They have a consular, ‘M’e ‘Mannete, who is doing work for them this side. There are no visa requirements between Lesotho and Ireland, our people just need an official letter from respective ambassadors vouching for them. We enjoy good relations with the Irish. We have already discussed with the incoming Ambassador of Ireland to South Africa and agreed to corporate more. I would wish to see our country take advantage of the warm relations we have with Ireland.