‘I don’t like it when people get hurt’
…says Social Development Minister Molahlehi Letlotlo
Social Development Minister, Molahlehi Letlotlo, has largely kept a low profile since assuming office in April this year.
Mr Letlotlo succeeded the outspoken ‘Matebatso Doti, who managed to endear the ministry to many Basotho during her two-year tenure.
The Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) leader—whose party formed government with the Democratic Congress (DC), Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), Basotho Congress Party (BCP), Popular Front for Democracy (PFD), Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP) and National Independent Party (NIP) after the 28 February 2015 snap elections had produced a hung parliament—speaks to Lesotho Times (LT) Political Editor Bongiwe Zihlangu about his ministry’s mandate, the challenges he has faced since assuming office, the role played by his predecessor, as well as the LPC’s significance in the coalition led by Prime Minister and DC leader Pakalitha Mosisili.
LT: You have been in office since April this year, taking over from ‘Matebatso Doti who was very outspoken. But you have been very quiet, creating the impression that you’re not doing anything. What would you say is the difference between you and Ms Doti?
Letlotlo: Indeed, I have not made much noise since assuming office, but that doesn’t mean I have not been doing anything. She was loud and out there as you put it. But you will realise that I have been in office since April. This ministry deals with vulnerable groups such as the disabled, orphans, the elderly and the destitute.
When this ministry was established in 2012, the aim was to move from a welfare approach whereby these groups’ survival was dependent on grants, to a position where they would eventually become independent and self-sufficient.
But the main question is, those interventions done by the former minister, were they really serving the purpose for which they were intended or was it just to make noise and deviate from important issues? Was it just to make people feel as though they were supported and accepted, when in actual fact there was no difference made?
If that was the case, then obviously this ministry’s mandate would not be achieved with that approach. What I am doing is working with development partners whose aim is to enhance the lives of people forming those marginalised groups. This will be effective through developing a work-plan so we don’t lose focus.
But at the end of the day, what is of utmost importance is for us to know what we need to achieve, to understand what we’re doing and for how long we can extend a helping hand to these groups. The main target at the end of the day is to ensure that people become self-sufficient.
It should also be clear that all interventions and efforts made to enhance people’s lives are done within the context of social protection.
For instance, we continue to issue cash grants to those who deserve them, but the main question is whether or not they will eventually uplift them. My approach is that at the end of the day, we equip them with skills through livelihood programmes they are gradually able to wean themselves off poverty. Government cannot spoon-feed or stay in their lives forever.
LT: You have only spoken about these groups without mentioning what government is doing to assist care-facilities such as orphanages and homes for the disabled. Do you also focus on them?
Letlotlo: Yes, care-facilities also receive subventions from government. I have been travelling all over the country, visiting them to establish what their needs are and what we can do as a ministry to emancipate them. We need to assist them to a point where they can stand on their own without the expectation of government subventions, or at least to decrease them once they attain a certain level of independence.
Our aim is also to empower orphans and the disabled with skills to enable them to make a living. That’s how I perceive my ministry’s mandate.
LT: You have mentioned that since government has only just passed its annual budget, you have not been able to hit the ground running, so to speak. But can you share with us what challenges you have met since assuming office?
Letlotlo: There is a myriad of challenges. For instance, one is still faced with establishing some facts about clients who have been receiving cash grants, such as who they are and where exactly in the country they are.
I have since discovered that some of the ministry’s clients who have been receiving cash grants on behalf of orphans, deliberately fail to report when they no longer stay with such children, and continue to receive the monies.
Again, what if these children are dying but their guardians choose not to report such deaths to the ministry in order to continue receiving those grants as if they are still living with them? This makes one wonder if government funds are channeled where they are intended.
Another challenge is that when we visit orphanages, we discover that they mostly institutionalise children and only release them to their families when schools close. An orphanage is a home for children whose parents have died and there are no family members to claim responsibility for them. An orphan should be an orphan in the true sense of the word. It is wrong to institutionalise children whose relatives still exist, who still claim ownership of them. Such children should be living with their families because we give these homes subventions based on the number of orphans they care for.
We also come across situations whereby orphanages give up children for adoption without informing the Ministry of Social Development. This goes beyond the ministry’s rules and regulations, which state that we should be notified of any adoption taking place.
As a new ministry, we also encounter the problem of not covering all bases and the length and breadth of the country due to inadequate staff.
The registration of orphaned children as beneficiaries of our programmes also gives us a headache because in most cases, guardians fail to produce the deceased parents’ identity documents such as death certificates, which are an integral part of registering children and securing documents such as birth certificates for them.
LT: It is a given, I believe, that any person manning a ministry such as yours, should have a passion for people, particularly children. Do you think you fit in?
Letlotlo: I sure do. I think I developed this passion and my love for this type of a job when I was DS (known as DA today) in the Mafeteng district and had to interact with people from all walks of life, working mostly with issues pertaining to estates. Guardians would come claiming access to policies left behind by deceased parents and it broke my heart to see children being ripped off and not benefitting from the legacy left them by their parents.
Every time I processed such documents, my heart would break because I knew those poor children were going to be deprived of their parents’ savings. I was once called to intervene in a case whereby parents had died and all the furniture and household items were removed from the house for ‘safekeeping’ by an uncle, while the orphaned boy was left to fend for himself in an empty house. I don’t like it when people get hurt and I hate people who hurt others. I also just love kids and I surely am in the right place.
LT: The main drivers of social and economic vulnerability are poverty, unemployment, and food-insecurity, as well as chronic illnesses like HIV/AIDS. How does your ministry intend to address them?
Letlotlo: Unemployment is the main source of these other problems: poverty, food-insecurity, diseases and so forth. When parents are unemployed, it means children are deprived of the care they deserve while the parents, particularly men who are the main breadwinners, feel inadequate.
Now, if unemployment is so rampant nationwide and the people’s quality of life is compromised, it means as government, there is something we are not doing. If we fail to bring services closer to the people such as roads, health and so forth, then we cannot expect their quality of life to improve. But if we bring services to the people, that translates into job-creation. But as things stand, we have neglected the people and their villages.
LT: What is your take on the progress made by the previous coalition government to transform people’s lives? Did that government make any noticeable strides?
Letlotlo: No, they did not. In my view, they deprived themselves of the opportunity to bring services to the people and transforming their lives by focusing more on retaliating against their predecessors.
Even if they had taken five, and not two years in office, I doubt they would have achieved much because they were more interested in building their agenda for elections by painting people black and pushing across the message that the previous government led by Mosisili had squandered public funds.
In my view, they did not have a clear agenda except to work hard towards buying votes and convincing Basotho that their political rivals were to blame for their plight. Lesotho is worse off; things would have been better if they had not assumed office in 2012.
LT: Can you say what the message of the LPC is and the impact you hope to achieve?
Letlotlo: We need to develop a plan for this country because if we don’t, then we won’t know where we are going. For instance, we have to revise our education system because as things stand, it is obvious it is not what we need anymore. We need to have a clear idea of where we want to take this country in terms of development.
When we educate children, it should be with the view to incorporate them in the country’s main plan. But we first must draw the plan and understand it.
For instance, if we plant forests, it should be for the purpose of producing merchandise such as toothpicks. We should be bottling our own water. Our hospitals should not be swamped with foreigners if we produce our own doctors.
LT: Now onto the LPC. Your party has remained small since its formation and now seems almost invisible. Why is that the case?
Letlotlo: You are right; the LPC has remained small. It is mainly because unlike other political parties, we remained in office most of the time instead of reaching out to the people at the grassroots and making our message known. We also failed dismally to take advantage of and use our political rivals’ weaknesses to our advantage, thus losing membership.
In 2007, we entered into an alliance called ACP with the BAC, which I have no doubt hurt us badly because our membership did not approve and decided to defect to other parties.
Another reason for this weakness is our association with the LCD. In 2012, they assigned former LPC leader Kelebone Maope to be Lesotho’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Thereafter they started spreading the message that our party was dead, leading to more members leaving the LPC. But we are working hard to mobilise support, retain our members while attracting more.
LT: The LPC is one of the smaller parties in the coalition government. What would you say is LPC’s role? Do you have a voice when it comes to decision-making?
Letlotlo: Yes we do have a voice. Each party had its own agenda and joined the coalition government on the basis that our ideas and visions would be incorporated in decision-making. We also have a Coalition Agreement which is government’s policy document and will soon become an Act of parliament.
There is no decision that is passed without our participation. There’s also no decision or ideas that Prime Minister Mosisili tables before cabinet without having prior discussions with leaders of the political parties comprising this government, based on the understanding that we are equal partners. His commitment to this government cannot be questioned.
LT: But there is this public perception that while the bigger parties make decisions, the rest of you leaders are sitting back and relaxing, enjoying the benefits that come with being ministers. How true is this? Are there things that you can’t speak against?
Letlotlo: There’s no government decision that can be made without our participation. There is a clear framework guiding us and anything that is done outside of it contravenes everything that we stand for as government, as partners. The Coalition Agreement is the founding instrument that we should all adhere to. Having said that, I must also state that people have their opinions and the right to say what they want.
LT: Do you see this government reaching its prescribed five-year mark?
Letlotlo: I don’t see why it cannot reach the five years, unless someone decides along the way to quit. But I can tell you right now is that our government is very solid and we all strive to ensure that it succeeds.