FORMER Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs Minister, Timothy Thahane — who recently fell-out with the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leadership, prompting him to contest the 28 February 2015 parliamentary elections as an independent candidate — says he still has a lot to offer the nation. Dr Thahane (74), who was appointed Finance and Development Planning Minister in 2002 before moving to the Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs portfolio in 2012, insists his decision to run for the Likhetlane constituency was not driven by anything but the desire to serve Basotho. After holding top positions at the World Bank and South African Reserve Bank, among other renowned financial institutions, Dr Thahane – who was fired as Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs Minister in November 2013 after being charged with corruption — tells Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, why he decided to contest the snap election instead of calling it a day in the wake of his court cases and dispute with the LCD leadership.
LT: Who is Timothy Thahane from a political point of view?
Thahane: I joined the BCP (Basotho Congress Party) during my schooldays and continued being a member until the formation of the LCD. However, when the LCD was formed (in 1997), I was not in the country. But I did join the LCD because I believed in the party’s philosophy, which was putting Basotho and their independence first. That was the central message. We had a constitution that governed us and processes for selecting candidates to go to parliament. But the current leadership does not seem to follow these procedures for nominating parliamentary candidates from the villages all the way up. And that was the point of departure. That was the point of difference. And when things like that happen, you do not go back and say it is the party that is wrong. No. It is the leadership that you have which is implementing your philosophy, your actions and what we intend to do for the people. So for me, the critical question was what do I do when the party does not follow its own processes, rules and procedures? And I said no, I will not be part of it. I appealed to them (leadership) to intervene; they did not intervene because they were already having their own agenda. And because I am now old, and have achieved the things I wanted to achieve in life, I told my people that although I would love to see Likhetlane prosper in other ways, I wanted to rest. They said no, we want you in parliament; they said we want you to work with us and see how we can improve our livelihoods because the leadership seems to be concerned about other things. And that is what led to my decision to contest the upcoming elections as an independent candidate.
LT: By why didn’t you join other political parties just like the rest of the disgruntled LCD members?
Thahane: I was approached by certain parties but declined to join them simply because I disagree with the leadership on one or two things. It is a serious decision to join a party as far as I am concerned. As a Mosotho, my interest is not in joining other parties but to see Lesotho as a respected sovereign state ruled by the law based on the constitution. If I am elected by the people of Likhetlane and I get into parliament, I will cooperate and work together with any government that emerges from these elections. However, that government would have to do certain things; first, it should put the interests of Basotho ahead of their own. Second, it should be a government that will lead and protect Lesotho as a democratic state that has a constitution and respects the rule of law. I will share my experience and knowledge with such a government without any reservations. Lesotho has made me what I am. Basotho paid for me to be what I am. I could not have been vice-president of the World Bank; I could not have been the Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank had I not been given the opportunity and support by Lesotho and through the taxes of ordinary Basotho. It is that recognition and respect for Basotho which brought me back home. I didn’t come here because I wanted a job. The pension I have from the World Bank and the Reserve Bank is more than enough for me to live on. But I feel I owe it all to my country. And probably more importantly, to that village where I come from, where I grew up. Those old people who sacrificed to make me what I am, those are the ones I owe my life to. And that is what encouraged me that in the previous government, when we worked with Ntate (Pakalitha) Mosisili (former prime minister) and I found that he shared that view about the elderly, I did the best I could to introduce old people’s pensions. So in parliament, the interests, desires, requirements, shortages, lack of jobs, lack of roads and whatever needs of the people of Likhetlane are uppermost in my mind. And a government which wants me to work with them should be sensitive to that and if it is not, then I won’t bother about it.
LT: So what exactly is your message to the people of Likhetlane?
Thahane: I say to them look me in the eye, because that’s when we can say the truth to each other. In Sesotho, we say litaba li mahlong. As a people, let’s say the truth always because that way, it will be easier to work things out if we are having any differences. If we do that, all this chicanery and scheming will go away. We need to create jobs for ourselves and become self-reliant. That is the core message I pass to my people. I am going to work with the people of Likhetlane to see how we can generate employment. Government has limited resources to create jobs that can cater for Basotho youths throughout the country. The people have to learn how to create jobs for themselves. That is my commitment with them. Take agriculture for instance — no country can go on and on without being able to feed itself. If you look at Lesotho, why are we having so many fields lying fallow? Why do we have 43 percent of our fields lying idle?
LT: So in a nutshell, your interests in this election are the people of your constituency and not personal gain?
Thahane: My interest is two-fold; one is to see Lesotho respected on the global stage. Second, I want to see young people excel in creating jobs and making a better life for themselves, which means the education must not simply be academic but also vocational. Young people should stop fighting for jobs in government because there will always be few opportunities in the public sector. Young people should be ambitious and say we want to be the best in the world. I was invited by former South African President, Dr Nelson Mandela, to become the first black Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank. He did not care that I was a Mosotho. The Parliament of South Africa amended the country’s laws to make it possible for me to take that job which was reserved for citizens but then changed to residents. Young people can also do this and achieve more in their lives.
LT: You were a minister for quite some time, and also held prestigious positions outside the country, like you mentioned. What makes you believe that you can bring change to your constituency now when you are no longer in these influential positions?
Thahane: You may be up there but you need foot-soldiers who share your vision and belief. It’s only if you are a dictator that you can say this and then it’s done. Politics is the art of the possible. It depends how influential you are that you can be able to direct change. At the World Bank, my mandate was the world. Lesotho was one of the 180 countries that I served. And I served them well. When I came to the Reserve Bank, my mandate was limited to what a South African rand was and to protect it. And when I became Minister of Finance (in 2002), my mandate was Lesotho as a whole; to make sure that I protect 50 000 jobs in the textile industry during that time of economic crisis. And I was successful. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) congratulated Lesotho on managing that crisis very well. I had to make sure that the new hospital (Tšepong) was built (and opened in 2011). I renegotiated Lesotho’s position better when I was Energy Minister. I went to Cape Town and renegotiated that energy must be part and parcel of the water transfer from here to South Africa. When I left government, my mandate became Likhetlane and how I could help create jobs. And that’s why I went into the private sector. I think now I am able to focus on Likhetlane. So it was a blessing in disguise when I was dismissed from government. When the LCD decided to side-step me, the people of Likhetlane said they wanted me to continue working and I wanted to retire. At the age of 74, I just don’t need to work. My pensions are enough to keep me and my family going. But you don’t get satisfaction when your neighbour goes to bed hungry, when you see a young person who wants to work and has skills but cannot work. That doesn’t sit well with me, and that is why I decided to accept the request from my constituency to stand in the election.
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LT: You were once accused by the very youths you are concerned about, of misappropriating M50 million set aside for them to start businesses…
Thahane: I will say to young people that instead of quickly criticising somebody, look at that person and say what can I learn from him or her and take what he has and use it for the betterment of us all and of this country. It was very painful for me that after I had put aside M50 million to help young people start businesses, I found myself under severe criticism. It was said in newspapers and on radios that I had stolen that money. How can I steal M50 million without it being traced? And when I was in the Ministry of Energy, some young people from various political parties said I didn’t know what I was doing, and so I should step down. How many of them know how to raise M3 billion? So my message is don’t be quick to criticise. At one point, the budget I controlled at the World Bank was for more than that of Lesotho. My advice is you don’t learn by criticising; you learn by observation and asking relevant questions. Let us not castigate each other. If somebody makes a genuine mistake, let us look at it and say correct it and move on. But if it is a deliberate undercutting of the law, it is a different case.
LT: Without dwelling much on the corruption charges you face before the courts, tell us how they affect your campaign for the elections?
Thahane: They are not because the people said until the cases are heard and you are convicted, we do not consider you a criminal. And that is what the law says; innocent until proven guilty. Not the other way round. My people are supporting me. But even if I lose the election, there is life ahead of me. And until my last day on this earth, I will continue to do the same and that is to serve my people. One must believe in something and know clearly how his life affects others. That’s my principle. If you ask what I am anxious about in the remaining days of my life, I will tell you that first, I want to serve God. Without Him I would not be who I am. Second, is to serve His creation, the people. I joined our civil service in 1968. I had learnt from my family that we are born to serve others not to be served. I learnt that philosophy from my parents and I still believe in it. I could have joined the business world and become a multimillionaire. But I wouldn’t have been happy without making a difference in somebody’s life.
LT: Is there any chance that you could return to the LCD?
Thahane: After the elections, we will talk with the LCD and even other parties about whether their commitments are the same as mine. I did not resign from the LCD; neither did I say the LCD, as a party, is wrong, but simply that I don’t agree with the leadership on certain issues. The best way to go about this is to discuss it with my people which is what I am doing at the moment.
LT: Considering the security challenges that Lesotho currently faces, do you think elections are the solution?
Thahane: We don’t have an alternative. Elections are the only solution we have for the people to decide the way forward. We definitely have to go back to the people to get a new mandate. As leaders, we have failed to govern. We are fighting for something, whether it is power or something else. But the fact is we are fighting and people are suffering.
LT: On a rather different note, we hear you now have an interest in the textile industry. Could you tell us more about this?
Thahane: The first Chinese firm in Lesotho was CGM (China Garments Manufacturer) in 1987. It came here because there was a certain trade preferential access to the US (United States of America) that the owners wanted to take advantage of. So they came and set-up shop here and started exporting their products. Nobody knew were the materials were coming from. Nobody knew where the finished product went. Since 1987, no Mosotho has ever had ownership in that industry. So when I left cabinet (in November 2013) I applied my mind to that. I learnt all the processes that go with it. As we speak, if the owners of a textile company decide to leave Lesotho for some reason, they simply take the machinery to other countries and leave us with nothing. I went to CGM and told them I wanted to get into that kind of business. I negotiated a partnership or cooperation agreement. And through their assistance and partnership with other people, we now have our own firm which already employs 150 people. I am basically now the owner of that textile manufacturing corporation that goes by the name of IGM – Industrial Garments Manufacturers Lesotho – specialising in workplace wear. CGM’s role in the agreement was to give us some technical training, material that we put together and sell the finished product to them. So as we master this phase, we learn where the material is coming from. We also learn how to negotiate with buyers along the way. The textile and apparel industry is one of the oldest in the world. It provides the largest employment base even though the incomes are not that huge, but still, it does provide income.
Today, employment in the textile industry in Lesotho is far larger than that of the government. The sector employs 45 000 to 50 000 people. The government is second. But because there is no ownership by Basotho in that industry at all, there is no money that flows into the country by way of dividends. What only flows here are wages and utilities. So I decided we were going to get in it and promote Basotho ownership but do it through partnership with a large existing company that knows the way. The second thing that is very important is that you have the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association, which is an organisation of Asian businesspeople lobbying the governments of Lesotho, the US and everything for Asian companies. One of my interests is to create the Lesotho Textile Association for local people to get in. I am just one of the few Basotho who have come in into this project. There are other Basotho we are already working with. We have invited the LNDC (Lesotho National Development Corporation) to join us, as well as CGM and the government and take the model we have throughout the country. It is important that as we go forward as Basotho, we recognise that we cannot depend on handouts from the rest of the world. We must do things ourselves.