LESOTHO Times (LT) deputy editor, Silence Charumbira, recently sat down with newly elected Basotho Action Party (BAP) secretary-general (SG), Lebohang Thotanyana to discuss his party’s prospects in the forthcoming elections. Below are excerpts of the wide-ranging interview including Mr Thotanyana’s views on the newly-formed Sam Matekane-led Revolution for Prosperity (RFP):
LT: Congratulations on being voted the BAP’s new secretary-general. You have come in at a crucial time when all parties are reading themselves for elections. This will be your first time contesting. How would you rate your chances?
Thotanyana: Our immediate task is to grow the party by recruiting new members and concluding the policy document of the party that we have been working on since the formation of the party.
Given the response we are getting from Basotho, I’m confident that we will perform well in the elections. Basotho are tired of the traditional political establishment. They were disappointed for a long time, and they are looking for new faces and this is what the leader of the BAP (Nqosa Mahao) is offering. They’re also looking for people who dwell on the past, on personalities, but people who talk about development. If you look across the spectrum, you’ll see that it’s only Professor Mahao and the BAP that really focus on the policy offerings that can change the lives of Basotho.
LT: Other politicians are running scared after the launch of the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) party last month. Your leader has labelled the RFP copycats allegedly because they have copied the BAP’s policies. What is your take on the RFP?
Thotanyana: Without a doubt, the RFP has shaken the political landscape as we know it, and Lesotho’s politics will never be the same. But you need to understand that money without a good plan will not yield any results. Thus far, al that the RFP has offered are just faces and personalities. But they have not indicated how they are going to achieve this prosperity that they are promising the nation.
I think Basotho are now wise enough not to just follow personalities. They would rather follow a programme led by certain individuals. And this is the niche that the BAP has, with its kind of leadership that is deeply rooted in a number of spaces that are geared towards taking the country forward.
Parties that do not have a strong ideological base are going to suffer a great deal. But the BAP’s messaging is anchored on social democracy. We are clear about how we intend on sharing the economy, distributing wealth, clean governance and achieving law and order. These are the things that Basotho are seeing and agreeing with.
Indeed, my leader was right when he said that the new party is made up of a bunch of copycats. But if you copy someone without really understanding the programmes that lie behind the things that are being said, you’re going to have a problem. So far, we haven’t seen and haven’t heard much from them. We’ve seen a few interviews of the leader of the party but he hasn’t come out clearly on what he will do differently from the traditional politicians that we have in Lesotho.
The RFP is just a party with lots of money but no plan. Until they put a convincing plan on the table, we will continue to say perhaps they should have joined the BAP and followed the good policies that we have. It does not help to divide our strength if they believe in what we believe in. It’s better if we worked together in one grouping to try and change the lives of Basotho. But the fact that they have gone and formed another party could actually be a good thing in that we are no longer a lone voice talking about what needs to be done to change the country’s fortunes. We have got other colleagues that are saying the same thing. So, it’s going to be interesting.
It’s true that the new party has rocked the establishment and our politics will never be the same.
The fear that we have though is that politics may get monetised. If have an elite running the political parties, what will happen to the majority in the nation?
LT: You say your ideology is social democracy, can you break it down? What exactly do you mean by that? There has always been the nationalist and the congress movements. So where do you fit in?
Thotanyana: The two sides (nationalists and congress) are more or less the same. But we are driven by three broad principles under social democracy. We believe in a capable state, a democratic state, and a developmental state. Those are the three broad themes that we aspire to see in Lesotho ultimately.
We’d like to see a country that can deliver services to its citizens, a country that fulfils its obligations, both domestically and internationally. But at the same time, we acknowledge that there are gaps in the economy that require state intervention. This is why we don’t quite follow the market economy, or the market system as is. For instance, we appreciate that Basotho are not actively participating in the economy and they’re losing out.
They are mostly vendors in the informal sector. They don’t have access to funding and they don’t have access to business support services. They don’t have the technical and vocational training required to run small businesses. These are some of the things that we want to address to uplift our people.
All that the nationalists and congress parties have done is to make a few people very rich. Lesotho now ranks number eight in the world and number one in Africa as one of the most unequal societies. This has caused a rise in the crime rate. Challenges within the societies are increasing and the lives of Basotho are becoming difficult. Basotho are moving out of their shops onto the streets. Their shops are being taken over by foreigners.
And this we cannot allow. The only way we can have locals competing with foreigners is when we give the necessary tools including access to finance, access to proper business support services, proper training, and ensuring that at least we occupy the small to medium enterprise space and Basotho can help defend that space while still attracting foreign investment into the country.
LT: You sound critical of this new party. We have seen before, your former party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy getting into pre-election pacts with other formations. Any chance of the BAP getting into a pre-election pact with the RFP?
Thotanyana: The BAP believes that it is going to win the elections outright but if we don’t win, then we will consider coalitions. However, the ideology must be the same and we must agree on the government programme. Those are the main issues that we will consider. We will also consider values and whether indeed we can work as individuals. Personalities tend to dominate space and destruct attention from the real issues but if we can agree on what needs to be done for this country then we can work together.
However, we are reluctant to consider a pre-election pact, we would rather say let’s talk about a post-election pact because with pre-election pacts you are also seen in the eyes of your partners, so we don’t want to be seen in the eyes of anybody.
LT: You just held your party elections, and the position of the party leader was uncontested. Did you not set a wrong precedence of politics of personalities? Are you saying there was no one good enough to challenge Prof Mahao? Were you not fit enough to challenge for that post?
Thotanyana: In our party, it is not the individuals that aspire for positions, they are sent by the constituencies. For me, I think this was a sign of stability, unification at least especially for a new party to say that now, we believe in the leadership of so and so. We believe it is capable and, in this case, it was Prof Mahao.
The party has unanimously that it believes in his leadership. It doesn’t mean that he we will be there forever or that he will not be challenged, who knows what will happen in the future but up to now the party believes that he is the right man to carry our mandate.
LT: You speak about access to finance, for instance, what is your roadmap to achieving this? Lesotho probably one of the few countries, if not the only one, that still require a citizen to go to a village chief to get proof of residence. If banks release money in such an environment, they often lose because they struggle to track borrowers because there are also no addresses and there are no roads. How do you intend to operationalise that plan if you get into government considering such challenges?
Thotanyana: We must accept, and we must also consider who are we dealing with in terms of the financial institutions. These are South African banks. In South Africa, the ANC (African National Congress) government and certainly the entire nation, because it’s now part of their NDP (national development plan), they have decided to form a state bank to fill the gap that exists in the market because they define their old banks as arrogant and unwilling to lend to black people in South Africa. And you will be expecting a miracle if we think that those people are going to lend to Basotho when they cannot lead to their very own people in their home country.
That’s problem number one that we have. I have been a director of these banks so; I understand and know what is going on inside. And part of the problem and challenge that we have is that I think 15 years ago, Lesotho was forced to reform its land administration system. This is when we introduced what we call Land Administration Authority (LAA). Part of that arrangement funded by the Americans was that we needed to help people to use land as collateral in accessing finance.
Fifteen years on, you can go back and check if that has improved anything. At the same time, we migrated from the traditional passport system that we had into another one and even introduced the identity document (ID) system precisely to make sure that when you talk about Lebohang Thotanyana, know that you’re talking about one person. The banks now have full access to the database of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is the population register. They introduced the credit bureau at the same time with the Central Bank of Lesotho. But after all that effort and investment they is still no change.
So, we need to begin to ask ourselves what exactly the problem is. And you need to also see it because these banks have come here following their big multinationals and corporates and really, they are interested in banking those guys and those that do business with those people. And if you look at the people that have been successful in accessing finance in Lesotho you will find out that these people that are working for the big multinational corporates that these banks are banking. So, clearly there is a gap in the market and there’s a structural problem that needs to be resolved. And the only way we will resolve that is when we establish a developmental bank that will close this clear gap that we have in the market.
And that is where we believe that we need to close that gap as the first thing and as a matter of urgency, we need to also see how best we can help the youth with an empowerment fund for them to be able to access funding and start small businesses, because we’ve got lots of youths that are educated, have graduated from university and are roaming the streets and are not doing anything. Most of them are talented and can teach you one or two things. But we have a situation where the banks are not ready to take the risk on locals that are not aligned or tied to the big multinational corporates that are coming from South Africa and elsewhere who are being targeted by these banks.
LT: In a small market like Lesotho where there is already the state-owned Lesotho PostBank, although it was not formed specifically formed to perform that function, is there a need to start a new bank?
Thotanyana: It serves a different purpose. The Lesotho PostBank was formed to try and fill the gap for the unbanked. It’s a retail bank. Precisely because the very same banks that I am talking about are unwilling to service the man on the street. So, it was supposed to be a low-cost retail bank that serves and bridges the gap in the financial space. But what we are talking about is something that is totally different. We are talking about a bank that now provides funding, business funding. A bank willing to take longer term risks with Locals in business.
The elements of that bank already exist within the PostBank, within the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) and within various government institutions. All that we must do is to consolidate them. We know that there are those loan guarantee schemes that the government established over time; all we need to do is to put all those things together, try and build a balance sheet, find a way in which you can acquire credit lines with foreign and international development partners so that in the end, we can achieve an equitable economy because that is what is worrying us a great deal because we have become a very unequal society, and Basotho are losing out in the battle for economic emancipation. And that surely cannot be allowed to happen because Basotho are getting poorer every day.
LT: You mentioned a credit of facility for youths, but we already have NMDS, a system that is struggling to recover money lent to students because the borrowers have no addresses and lenders must rely on chiefs to track down borrowers. We still have housing settlements sprouting without road infrastructure and houses without addresses. How does the BAP hope to address these fundamentals to ensure that lenders feel safe to lend money?
Thotanyana: I think the problem has been resolved largely overtime and much as there are still elements that require attention like what you are referring to, making sure that the streets have got names, houses are numbered, and people can live in proper habitable environments. But NMDS is part of the problem. What we need to do, and our policy is very clear, is that we need to corporatise the NMDS; maybe set it up as an independent authority or a parastatal or even link it with all these other financial institutions that we refer to. And what we need to be doing in that space is that we need to run NMDS in a ringfenced arrangement where it can source funding from the private sector and internationally.
NMDS is supposed to be a revolving fund where people get loans and payback so that it can be given to others. At the moment, unfortunately, because it’s run by a government ministry, NMDS is not being run in that fashion and the government is having to spend, invest lots of money every year.
So, we would like to see a situation where the government gives the NMDS working capital, then NMDS gives those loans and ensures that borrowers pay up in the end. So, this is something that we agree entirely that it requires restructuring. NMDS needs to also provide more funding for students who are going to undertake essential courses on industry fit for purpose and industry relevant skills.
This is part of the problem. It is unclear whether NMDS is fit for the assignment. Government alone has thousands of vacancies. At the same time, you’ve got thousands of people who are roaming the streets unemployed. The question is, why can’t you match the jobs to these people? The problem is always the skill gap compared to the skills that are required.
So, this is a structural problem that we must address and ensure that our higher education speaks to the needs of the people and talks to the industry’s needs. We must ensure that we don’t train workers entrepreneurs who can go out there and start businesses and employ people.
LT: It’s been a trend in every ministry each time a government comes in that projects collapse. Each time a new minister is appointed, projects must start all over again. What is the BAP’s approach towards issues like that? How do you intend to achieve stability?
Thotanyana: I think its two things, recently the challenge has to do with the fact that Lesotho has been having coalition governments which never last long but at the same time, there is no national consensus on what needs to be done. We almost need our long-term programme or developmental agenda that is agreed by all parties in parliament and all members of society.
We must set one agenda, have something like South Africa’s national developmental plan, a programme that we will be sure that irrespective of who gets into power, they will pursue still happen. I think that is where we are lacking because when you look at the current political leadership, there is no consensus on what needs to be done to take Lesotho out its current problems.
So, we need a major national dialogue to discuss these issues and to at least agree on what needs to be done. Let’s agree on the goals but let’s compete on the how. The journey must be known that this is where we are heading and the Lesotho that we want so that the parties can compete on how we get there. This is where parties’ manifestos will state; for us to get Lesotho to this point, these are the things that we will do, and this is how we will go about on getting there.
Unfortunately, we do not have that and if the BAP gets into government, this is something that we will push for and ensure that we rally the nation around one agenda and try get the consensus within all sectors of the society on what needs to be done.
LT: How do you intend to do that? We already have the National Reforms Authority (NRA) which has representation from all parties and sectors but there is chaos.
Thotanyana: The problem is that the NRA has not been very successful. It’s been focused on the legal reforms such as the constitutional reforms, structural reforms but it hasn’t achieved in terms of engaging the nation to ask what really needs to happen? Where did we go wrong? How can we correct the situation? What is the Lesotho that we want? So, we need to create space for that engagement for that dialogue to happen for the people, parties and everybody to agree on what needs to be done and I think these this something that we have not been successful in doing.
We tried with the national vision 2020 but it failed spectacularly simply because the engagement was not robust enough and we didn’t have proper mechanisms to protect that. Unfortunately, even the same government that pushed for that vision did not even follow it. They didn’t even report to the nation on what is it that they achieved in within the 20 years in that national division 2020. So, for me that is one of the key things that need to happen.
LT: Social democracy, I get a nuance of service delivery there. Lesotho has one of the highest crime statistics, education is on its knees, the health sector is similarly dithering with monumental chaos at the county’s biggest referral hospital, Queen ‘Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH). How does service delivery fit into your ideology of social democracy?
Thotanyana: By building a capable state. First by depolarising the public service and secondly, by equipping the public service with the necessary skills to become efficient and to deliver service. The public servants must understand that we, the nation, are the reason why they are there and not the other way round.
I think we must resource some of the institutions. We must strengthen key institutions that enhance democracy, anticorruption fighting institutions and institutions of oversight starting from parliament, the entire justice value chain, from the police all the way to the courts. They must be reformed.
We must also ensure that we give the police for instance, uniforms, the necessary equipment for them to work instead of relying on politicians. We must strengthen monitoring and oversight. Building a capable state is our priority as the BAP when we get to government because without a capable state, we will not go anywhere. We want the kind of state that fulfils its responsibilities to its citizens and international partners. That is the Lesotho we aspire to see under a BAP government.
LT: Any burning issues that you want to address?
Thotanyana: I think for us as the BAP, we have come out differently because for a long time, and up to now you can see that Lesotho is stuck in the politics of personalities. We were excited seeing dominant personalities like Pakalitha Mosisili and Thomas Thabane exiting the political scene and we were hoping for a reconfiguration of the political landscape so that the agenda would no longer be about personalities. Now we thought we could move to real issues that are affecting the people. But by the look of things, we are still stuck in that same system. This is why when somebody wakes up forming a party, we don’t ask them what they are offering, we just follow whether that person is taking us backwards or forward, we don’t care.
Lesotho is at the crossroads because what has happened (formation of the RFP) is also defeating the same reforms project that we have undertaken, the investment by our developmental partners because now we know longer have a private sector. The local vibrant, private sector was simply buried when this party of tycoons was introduced.
It means we no longer have an independent private sector voice that can represent the private sector and the real risk is that if these people (RFP) come into government, the cabinet now turns into a boardroom, and God knows what will happen. This is a real risk that we need to be discussing as Basotho. What does it really mean for us as a nation?
The main themes of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) Compact II which Lesotho recently secured have to do with building a private sector led economy, but you can’t build it without the private sector itself because it has simply just died. Our private sector has also confirmed one thing, that politics in Lesotho is more lucrative than business itself. These are the real risks that we must be dissecting and asking how we are going to deal with them if the country is to get out of the situation that it is in. I am very scared that we may have taken a wrong turn.