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Justice Minister hits the ground running

by Lesotho Times

ON 3 October 2019, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane reshuffled cabinet and moved Mr Semano Sekatle (SS) from the Public Service ministry to the Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services.

In this interview, the Lesotho Times (LT) Editor Herbert Moyo sought to understand the new minister’s vision as well as to find out the status of the case of suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara.

LT: You have been in government before with the DC and you are now in the government again with the ABC. What would you make of the experiences? How similar and how different are they for you individually in terms of the challenges? How do you see the situation of serving in two different political parties? 

SS: The DC was more experienced in the processes of government. By the time they lost the elections (in June 2017), they had now developed to a level where they were more knowledgeable in terms of managing the government. The present government like the previous has two major limitations.

First of all it is a coalition government and therefore there is need to manage the relationships among the coalition partners. Secondly it brings in new people into government which speaks of the need for these new people to learn. They need time to appreciate how to run a government. That has been my experience so far joining this coalition.

LT: Not long after you joined the ABC from the DC, we saw the infighting that developed as a result of the ABC’s 2019 elective conference outcome. Do you think that the parties are doing enough to find each other and solve this problem considering how it threatens the smooth functioning of government? What do you make of the situation and what needs to be done? 

SS: It was extremely sad that when I joined them there was infighting within the party. I don’t think they are doing enough to find each other because what they are fighting over can be resolved and it should not be allowed to bring the government down as it is threatening to do now. But there are many good people in the ABC — the councillors who could bring them together.

Mediators could also be engaged so that they can find each other. That would be my proposal. Why don’t you bring mediators, outside people who have nothing to do with it and then they mediate between the warring parties. It is something that is very sad that a government can be threatened to this extent.

LT: You have already served in the public service portfolio and tourism as well.

You came in at a time when there were all of these demands from the public servants. We saw the police coming up with their demands for salary increments. We saw the teachers. We have seen even the magistrates. What do you make of the salary demands? 

SS: This is normal. In most cases when a new government comes in, workers will always test the waters and find out whether they can have their needs met. So it is not bad or exceptional to this government. The police have been on strike but you have to deal with it. The IMF and the World Bank are not against the salary demands as such but they are looking at helping the country manage the wage bill. The wage bill is beyond the recommended levels in terms of its relationship with the GDP of the country.

That doesn’t mean that employees in Lesotho are earning more. It just means that when you relate the wage bill to the GDP, it is overly beyond the recommended levels. So it’s nothing new, it’s something that we have to work on and get agreements and we’re doing that.

In terms of the police, they were not actually looking for an increase. They had asked for an increase a year or two ago which they got but it there was not enough money to pay all of them. So they were demanding that those arrears be made good which was exactly what the government did.

As for the magistrates, their demand is such that when the process of normalising certain positions in the public service was done, they were unfairly left out. So when I was in the public service ministry, I met them and we discussed that. I found that indeed they were overlooked.

I agreed with them that we are going to look at their issues and see how best we can work out what level they should come to in terms of the structure and their positions. So, we are still in that process. I didn’t know that I would come here (to the justice ministry) but I am here now.

We will meet again and we will deal with that (magistrates’ grievances). There’s a lot of progress that is going on with regard to the teachers grievances. From the public service point of view, they had demanded that their organisational and salary structure should be reviewed. We have done that and completed the review and I hope the new structure can be implemented as from next year.

LT: You are coming in at a time when we have what some would say is a crisis within the judiciary. First of all, we haven’t had a substantive chief justice since September 2018 when the chief justice, Nthomeng Majara, was suspended and we currently have an acting chief justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase, who is facing an impeachment case in the courts right as we speak.

A tribunal was supposed to be set up to impeach Justice Majara but so far we haven’t seen any impeachment process and we heard that behind the scenes there were negotiations to give her an exit package so she doesn’t have to go through the impeachment process. What is the current status of the issue of the chief justice Majara?

 SS: The position is that negotiations to settle out of court ensued because the government had taken her (Justice Majara) to task and she also took the government to court. So negotiations ensued with regard to settling outside of court. We have now completed that process. So there is an agreement that we resolve the issue amicably. But this all I will not tell you for now.

“We have now completed that (the negotiations) and there is an agreement.

“We resolved everything amicably. But I cannot disclose what the agreement actually says until such a time when everything is right. All you need to know is that we have finalised the negotiations for an out-of-court settlement that will see her go.

LT: We have the multi sector reforms and the judiciary is one area that needs to be reformed and before she was suspended, she had actually put together a committee which had judges to brainstorm on what they would want to see in the reforms and one of the things that came out in their paper we have written about it. One of the things that they mentioned in their paper, they want to see one, the abolition of the Court of Appeal, and they want to have a Supreme Court which is headed by the Chief Justice, which means that the position of Court of Appeal president will fall away.

The other thing they want is for the prime minister to have nothing to do with the appointment and the impeachment of judges. Have there been any discussions in terms of what you would want to see within the judiciary? 

SS: For now I can’t comment on the state of the judiciary. So far I have only met the chief justice and she has outlined what she needs and what can be done so we still have to look into that.

But I haven’t met anyone else and next week I’m going to meet the rest of the judges and thereafter the magistrates. I will meet them directly and hear their concerns. Until then, I’m handicapped to speak about that.

LT: Are there any efforts to ensure that we have more local judges and we increase the numbers to deal with the huge backlog of cases?

 SS: Yes. The chief justice has raised that concern with me. We need to increase the number of judges. There are judges are retiring soon so that justifies their replacement and increasing the number.

We are also looking to decentralise the High Court and have it in the districts outside Maseru. In Leribe there is already appropriate infrastructure so we can have the High Court there. It will be easy to do that, but in the south region we don’t have the infrastructure. We also have to consider the money side. I was particularly happy that she (Justice Mahase) is looking forward to decentralising the High Court. It is within our reach.

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