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Mahali shoots from the hip

by Lesotho Times
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  • “I thrive on negativity,” she says of the corruption allegations and infighting in the AD

THE political landscape has always been a treacherous and difficult terrain for female politicians in Lesotho despite all efforts to empower them. But some female politicians like Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation Minister, Mahali Phamotse, are made of sterner stuff.

Dr Phamotse has served in the previous seven parties’ regime and has already served in two challenging portfolios in the current Thomas Thabane-led four party coalition. She also serves as the secretary general in the second largest party in the governing coalition, the Monyane Moleleki-led Alliance of Democrats (AD).

While it is not uncommon to face criticism from the opposition, it is the internecine fighting in the AD which has taken centre stage with Dr Phamotse involved in ugly spat with fellow senior AD official and party spokesperson Thuso Litjobo who accuses her of corruption and plotting against Mr Moleleki.

However, in this week’s interview with Lesotho Times (LT) Senior Reporter Pascalinah Kabi, Dr Phamotse (MP) was the picture of perfect calm, saying she is taking everything in her stride and remains unshaken despite all the allegations levelled against her.

 LT: You are one of the prominent female politicians who faces serious accusations from your own party colleague. How has this affected you, if at all?

 MP: I have determination, purpose and courage to carry on doing things that I believe will benefit the masses, myself included. I remain level-headed because of my resolve that I should not be derailed from pursuing whatever will benefit majority of Basotho.

I have resolved to look for a single positive thing in every negative activity or utterances fashioned against me because the positive aspect would either benefit me or my country. When someone insults me I see the benefits of those insults, and when someone wrongs me, I see a positive thing out of that. As a journalist, you will agree with me that any publicity, whether negative or positive, is good publicity and for me that is a benefit because one day the truth will come out.

I have never had any big achievement in my life through a positive publicity. From an early age, people have never said any positive things about me but I have flourished despite all that. It is of late that I am beginning to see the positive publicity around me and this only began when I joined the Ministry of Sports.

Sports people are very appreciative and I have never come across a group of people who openly show their gratitude as they do. Their gratitude has cemented my resolve to work for the people, it has given me the courage to continue to work hard despite all this negativity. Negativity has always fuelled me to push for survival and it is a skill that I have mastered since I was a child. I love negativity because I do not see it as negativity.

Women should avoid unsavoury relationships that can later compromise them. No one can take away your pride and determination if they have no hold over you. There is always a misplaced belief that women can only get certain positions because of certain relationships with political leaders or certain ministers who have influence. There are so many theories as to why women leaders have been appointed to assume certain positions and those include their looks or what they have offered to people in power.

But I can confidently say I have managed to stay out of it and whenever I stand in public, I stand confidently knowing that my pride is with me; my dignity is with me and there is no man who can stand here and claim that “this woman is where she is because we did this and that”.

People will always talk but the truth has its own way of surfacing and that encourages me a lot. I advise fellow women that it is very important that when you are in a job of this nature, you avoid such things. It helps a lot especially in terms of pride and dignity.

While I appreciate that relationships are a day-to-day lifestyle, I would advise women who seek public office to stay out of it. It gives you pride knowing that you have done well by yourself. Most people take this for granted, saying it is their private lives but it is a serious issue. It is your private life but then it impacts on your career, whether you are a teacher or a minister. I am not judging anyone but I have survived this way and would encourage women to try it.

The other thing is that I only sleep four hours a night. It is a habit I developed way back when I was still a young, I find working at night more productive. The latest I arrive at work is 7am. Although I do not have much time, I make sure that I never get into a lift as a part of a physical exercise.

I also go for a gym and do aerobics when I have time. I also get the support from many people, family and friends but I do not many have friends. I only have four friends but I know that people are going to get pissed off (if I mention names). When I want to cry I call my friends, when I am happy I call them and these are the people I am confident to call my true friends.

LT: You have always been appointed to controversial ministries such Education; Justice as well as Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation. How would you categorise your time in all those ministries?

 MP: The Ministry of Education was the most orderly in terms of its administration. It is true that in the beginning the civil servants were a bit difficult but they eventually came on board. They worked very well with me. Teachers were very angry but I was able to talk to them and they were very understanding. There was a looming teachers strike in 2015 but I sat them down, we talked and that subsided.

While it is true that there were some elements did not understand me, I must say that we managed to amicably resolve the issues. This does not mean that there was something special about me but I chose to talk to them and talking resolves issues.

Even if you do not have anything material to offer to people, humbling yourself and talking to them always works best. I believe in talking to people, from high up ranking officials to the lowest of them all.

The Ministry of Justice had with its own challenges. The Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS) has its own problems. The entrenched party politics in the LCS were the worst but I sat down with the civil servants and eventually things ran smoothly.

I think ministries that I have been appointed to were never controversial before my appointment and I do not know why because immediately after leaving the ministries, such controversy subsides.

It is true that there is still controversy in the Education and Justice Ministries but it is not as much as when I was there. That worries me because I wonder if that happens because I am a female but I do not know because other women have been ministers before.

While there were issues in the judiciary, we still sat down and talked. I have always been honest with civil servants and I asured that they understand the real me. I tell them that I am not one who shies away from getting to the bottom of any issue, I can and have gone to the lowest civil servant to get to the bottom of issue.

I respect protocol but imagine when there is crisis and you have to follow that same rigid protocol. I respect people but when they are not able to do their job, I go as far as talking to the lowest ranked individual to get to the bottom of the problem and there is nothing they can do about it.

This is why I make it abundantly clear to the principal secretaries that they must effectively discharge their mandate to ensure that I do not find myself talking to lowest ranked officer. But I must say in all these ministries, I have enjoyed cordial working relationships with all the principal secretaries.

I think I am blessed because I have never come across rebellious civil servants. So I do not know what brings that controversy. Here at the Gender, Youth and Sports ministry, it is refreshing to serve players and sports administrators. Sports people are the most appreciative people I have ever met and so are the journalists.

I have never had a go at the media even when they write negative things about me. I love publicity whether positive or negative; it is very important for me as a politician.

So this means I am enjoying my stay here because I have realised that these people love me and I want to thank the Honourable Prime Minister Thomas Thabane for advising His Majesty King Letsie III to appoint me to this ministry. For once I have a less controversial ministry. I have had my share of being in the lions’ den.

LT: It would be remiss of me not to ask you to speak on the corruption accusations that have been levelled against you. 

 MP: Corruption is something that needs to be proven and in all honesty. There are incidents that have been raised, one of those accusations was that of the hiring of teachers while I was still a Minister of Education. I was summoned by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain and said that I put in place a placement policy when the national constitution is clear that a certain process should have been followed. This issue is still before the PAC, I am yet to furnish PAC with the cabinet’s approval of my actions.

When I arrived at that ministry, there were so many vacant positions being taken off the list because schools were not hiring as they should have been because of corruption and nepotism.

Teachers came to my office confessing that they were hired after paying M7 000 bribes and parliamentarians came to me with serious allegations. I decided that we could not go on like that and we conducted a study with questions structured by the ministry.

We wanted to ensure that school boards followed the procedure because they were employing people and we were just a rubber stamp. I immediately stopped that and they would now recommend six people for each position.

In collaboration with school secretaries, who are today making up stories, we agreed to conduct that study. The disagreement only arose when they (school secretaries) wanted to be part of the study.

I refused because they were part of the system that we were investigating. I was questioned on that matter and I told them that the commission was responsible for hiring. I also denied allegations that I issued a list for hiring teachers and civil servants also denied having said that before PAC.

The issue was why we jumped the boards and decided to use the Teaching Service Commission for hiring. I, Mahali Phamotse, am not embarrassed that I advised the cabinet to pilot the placement policy because of serious corruption and nepotism charges. It was sad and if that is corruption. I am proud because I did not hire anyone from my family. I did not care who got hired as long as it was a Mosotho.

As a minister I told the legal team, principal secretary and the commission the route I wanted to take to address the issue of teachers’ recruitment and asked them to carefully inspect and ensure that I do not violate the law.

They said everything was okay and as a minister I implemented that pilot project with cabinet approval. You cannot turn something into law without piloting it first to see how best it performs. I asked for a legal opinion and it was issued. The legal opinion was correct because we had serious questions on how principals and school secretaries carried out the hiring and transfer of teachers.

Our suspicions were not misplaced because one of the school secretaries was fired due to the questionable transfers of teachers. Investigate these issues and see what you will find. Schools mushroomed everywhere under his leadership and were only registered five years later.

That is what they did and all of these things will not be questioned. They will only talk about Mahali who saved so many positions for Basotho children. That was the only year we recorded the highest filling of positions as compared to any other year.

There is also the 2015 issue regarding book tenders which I understand that it is still before court. There are companies which have been publishing books from when we were children that are still enjoying unfettered business monopoly in that ministry. I am proud that I fought that system even though I did not succeed.

They still enjoy that monopoly because that practice has been deeply rooted in the ministry. I was fighting for local companies, arguing that they would never have printing experience if  the government does not award them those tenders.

My argument was that since the civil servants were writing the books for these big companies, why not use them to write for Lesotho companies that would in turn employ more people as compared to these foreign businesses? These foreign businesses have small offices in Lesotho and they never spend money made in Lesotho in this country. Why do we have to do that (keep them)?

The civil servants peddled allegations that my child had shareholding in one of the local companies and I just could not stomach it. It was depressing but I pressed hard for it and now they are saying I attempted to engage in corruption. I did not succeed even in getting Basotho businesses to get a share of the supply of stationary.

I am told there is a pending corruption case against me for attempting to have Basotho companies awarded tenders. So that is my sin or corruption as they say. They mean that attempting to ensure that Basotho companies get jobs is corruption and if that is corruption, then I am proud of it.

Instead of heeding my call, it was then said I wanted to award a tender for stationary supply to my husband. Even today, I am still insist that we must capacitate Basotho companies or force the big companies to open printing plants in Lesotho.

LT: Why is it that your fellow AD members are gunning for you this much and levelling serious accusations against you?

 MP: I think it is not gunning against me personally. There is a person I am protecting and it is my mandate as a secretary general to protect that person and the party. I am protecting the leader (Mr Moleleki) and the party and it is a duty that I wholeheartedly undertake day and night.

So if you are gunning for somebody protecting something else, you are not gunning for that person. You cannot (like Mr Litjobo) go on to say a certain minister who was once an education minister told teachers to strike. Are you saying my leader does not have power?

Is this person (Mr Litjobo) gunning for me or somebody else, implying that ‘heee uena monna u lutse mono u shebile mosali eno (loosely translated to mean: ‘hey you man, you are sitting there doing nothing about this woman’).

I do not think people are doing that to me, they are doing it to the leader because to me, he is the one with power in my party and this is the person I am working for. When they say that, it pains me not because they are attacking me but they are attacking my leader.

My leader is the most intelligent person in this country. That man is very intelligent and nobody can just come up and say that in front of my leader. What is he (like Mr Litjobo) suggesting that I am doing to Ntate Moleleki? What is this person saying? If you deeply interrogate his statement, what is this person really saying? Is this person attacking me? He (Mr Litjobo) is saying I am controlling many ministries but where are the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in all this?

If this was a religious issue, we would definitely say this is blasphemous. Besides that he (Mr Litjobo) is suggesting that I am trying to overthrow this government because when you are a minister and you are no longer taking instructions from your principals and that is treason.

This person is saying so many things in one sentence that are very destructive but not to me. Am I that powerful as this man is saying? Oh God, I did not know that I can make the country stand still. But then again this is stupid. You cannot say that about my leader and your leader too in public. You cannot. So I do not feel I’m being attacked. The AD members are not attacking me per se.

Even when they are burning down offices (last year), they are not burning my office. They did not burn my office. I do not have an office. They are burning an AD office. They are burning the AD’s property and that of the leader, not mine. I do not have any property in that office. Whatever that is sourced out, even if it can be through me is no longer mine. So how are they attacking me?

Whoever is doing that is very stupid because honestly speaking, when you hate or despise someone and say something about her, you are literally saying to the people that they must pay more attention to her. It is stupid. Just keep quiet when you hate somebody and forget that they exist. That is how you destroy someone but then politicians do not do that, they will talk about you and raise you up until you are up there where they cannot even get to you.

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