- as ‘fired’ principal secretaries defy orders to vacate office
TWO principal secretaries (PSs) have rebelled against Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro and refused to accede to his orders to go on forced leave pending dismissal.
The development is yet another test for Dr Majoro’s two-month-old government which is facing resistance from disgruntled legislators who either did not make it into cabinet or are swayed by the perennial factionalism in the All Basotho Convention (ABC).
The two PSs – ‘Mabotle Damane (Communications, Science and Technology) and ‘Maseithati Mabeleng (Forestry, Range and Soil Conservation) this week refused to vacate their offices to make way for their replacements Tšeliso Lesenya and Mole Khumalo respectively. They have now gone to court to try and stop Dr Majoro from replacing them.
It emerged this week that former premier Thomas Thabane had renewed the contracts of at least eight PSs just before his ouster in May 2019. The PSs had sought the renewals of their contracts – five months before their expiry – in terms of the law.
Dr Majoro has since reshuffled some of them into new portfolios. But he had also asked Ms Damane and Ms Mabeleng to go on forced leave with effect from 10 July 2020, a prelude to their dismissals. The two are nonetheless digging in. They refused to vacate their offices this week, opting to sue Dr Majoro for what they see as an illegal move to fire them from their cushy jobs via the rear door.
The new ruckus comes barely a week after some ABC legislators still loyal to Mr Thabane vowed to sabotage Dr Majoro if he did not compel the police and prosecution authorities to drop an impending murder charge against the ex-premier. They threatened to disclose Dr Majoro’s “dirty secrets” if he did not abide by their demands. Two other ABC legislators have defected to the opposition.
According to authoritative government sources, Ms Damane and Ms Mabeleng’s forced leave was a prelude to their dismissals. It was meant to enable Dr Majoro time to decide on how best to arrange their exit since he cannot just sack them on whim or caprice.
Their contracts were expiring this month after they were initially appointed by Mr Thabane on his second return in June 2017. They had, however, been renewed for a further three years by the ex-premier just a month before he was forced to step down in May 2020 in favour of Dr Majoro.
Six other PSs whose contracts were also renewed by Mr Thabane have either been retained or shuffled into new portfolios. They are Mothabathe Hlalele who was retained as PS at Public Works. Nthoateng Lebona, who was moved to Finance from Development Planning. Motena Tšolo went to Development Planning from Finance. Malefetsane Nchaka who was shuffled to Water from Agriculture, Tšeliso Lesenya who was redeployed to Communications from Public Service and Khothatso Tšooana who went to Health from Local Government.
It is not clear whether their movement into new portfolios is a vote of confidence from Dr Majoro and a signal that he will retain them as per their contract renewals by the previous premier. But should he elect to eject them from the government, he could end up with the same problem posed by Ms Damane and Ms Mabeleng. The issue of PSs is already contested terrain with the ABC’s national executive committee (NEC) have signaled it wanted new competent deployees in those positions. It appears the NEC was not aware many of the PSs had already been reappointed by Mr Thabane.
Every new prime minister normally wants to have a free hand in choosing their PSs. Even though PSs are administrative positions and should not ideally be affected by the vagaries of politics, in Lesotho they are political appointees and come and go as governments fall. But lawsuits have often ensued if changes are foisted on PSs with valid contracts. The PS positions are also contested territory in coalitions as each party prefers to appoint its own people to the ministries it controls to ensure a full handle on a ministry’s budget.
It is in that context that Home Affairs Minister and DC deputy leader, Motlalentoa Letsosa, fumed when Nonkululeko Zaly reported for work as the new PS for that ministry last week after the expiry of the contract of the incumbent Machabana Lemphane-Letsie. The latter had not sought the renewal of her contract. An irate Mr Letsosa refused to accept Ms Zaly, who had also been appointed by Mr Thabane ahead of Ms Lemphane-Letsie’s contract expiry. The DC deputy leader argued Ms Zaly’s appointment was not in line with his party’s founding coalition agreement with the ABC. In terms of that agreement, each party seconds its own PSs to its allocated ministries. The ABC has since said it will reconsider her appointment to avert a fallout with the DC.
Such contestations over administrative positions that should be purely apolitical has been frequently cited as being at the core of governance malfeasance in Lesotho. It remains to be seen if the SADC mandated reforms will rectify that problem.
In Ms Damane and Ms Mabeleng’s case, the High Court is being asked to issue an interim order to keep them in their posts until their main case challenging the entire decision to send them on forced leave is adjudicated. The two condemn Dr Majoro’s decision to send them on forced leave as a ploy to dismiss them via the backdoor.
They thus seek a final order for Dr Majoro to be interdicted and prevented from terminating the employment relationship between them and the government without following due process and without affording them a fair hearing.
They also want the court to declare that upon renewal of their contracts of employment, Dr Majoro was bound to honour their terms and conditions. He is not entitled to terminate the contracts without following due process.
They seek an order declaring that they “…. are entitled to discharge their duties and functions as principal secretaries in accordance with laws and regulations governing their occupation of office and in return are entitled to such remuneration and benefits as set out in their employment contracts and laws governing their employment.”
Dr Majoro, Government Secretary (GS) Moahloli Mphaka and the Attorney General Haae Phoofolo are first to third respondents respectively.
Ms Damane, Ms Mabeleng and their six colleagues’ contracts were renewed in April 2020 by Mr Thabane after they had all written to him expressing their wishes to have them renewed.
In her founding affidavit supporting her application, Ms Mabeleng said she was originally appointed principal secretary on 7 July 2017 for an initial three years. She was obliged to indicate her intention to have the contract renewed five months before it expired if she wanted it extended. She said she had asked GS Mphaka for the renewal of her contract on 23 January 2020. The request was duly granted on 21 April 2020. The new contract would take effect from 6 July 2020 on the same terms and conditions as the expired one.
“I continued serving the government with dedication and to the best of my abilities. I aver that this is the reason the respondents renewed my contract….,” says Ms Mabeleng in the affidavit.
In fact, on 12 May 2020 she says Dr Majoro, who was then Finance minister, had written her what appeared to be a standard letter designating her as the chief accounting officer in the Ministry of Forestry, Range and Soil Conservation outlining what was expected of her.
But she says she was surprised to receive a letter on 10 July 2020 from Mr Mphaka informing her that Dr Majoro had directed that she “proceed on leave with immediate effect”. She says the directive was illegal as she had not applied for such leave and did not want to go on leave.
“In the same letter the second respondent (Mr Mphaka) directed me to hand over my office to Mr Mole Khumalo, whom I was informed, had been transferred to the ministry in which I am the principal secretary and chief accounting officer,” Ms Mabeleng states.
She says she then wrote to Mr Mphaka informing him that Dr Majoro does not have the powers to order her to go on forced leave with immediate effect.
Ms Mabeleng said she further informed Mr Mphaka that in terms of section 12 (c) of the Public Service Act, only the government secretary could decide on her application for leave. The fact that Mr Khumalo had been sent to replace her meant she was effectively being illegally fired.
“The decision to make me proceed on leave with immediate effect stands to violate my right to income and my integrity. There are no reasons advanced why I should proceed on leave with immediate effect when I have just started the second tour of my employment contract,” Ms Mabeleng states.
In her supporting affidavit, Ms Damane advances similar arguments. She says on 10 July 2020 she had been asked by Mr Mphaka to vacate her office in favour of Mr Lesenya who had been appointed to replace her.
She says she immediately wrote to Mr Mphaka informing him that Dr Majoro did not have the powers to order her to go on forced leave.
“The second respondent (Mr Mphaka) orally told me that they would not change their stance and they still expect us to proceed on leave despite our seeking clarity on the matter.
“He told us in no uncertain terms that the first respondent (Dr Majoro) does not want to work with us, which we interpreted to mean he is dismissing us by requiring us to proceed on leave with immediate effect,” Ms Damane says.
It is not clear why Dr Majoro had targeted the two for replacement. Their case however illustrates the many sources of resistance that he faces as he seeks to consolidate his hold on power.
Mr Mphaka and the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Kemiso Mosenene, were not reachable by the time of going to print last night.
Multiple sources of resistance to his authority are nonetheless what Dr Majoro least needs when he faces mammoth governance challenges.
Last month, two ABC legislators Mokherane Tsatsanyane (Stadium Area constituency) and Sello Mooki (Bobatsi) defected to the opposition Alliance of Democrats (AD) in protest over Dr Majoro’s decisions to overlook them for cabinet posts.
Other Thabane loyalists have also demanded that Dr Majoro orders a halt to Mr Thabane’s prosecution for the 14 June 2017 murder of his ex-wife, Lipolelo. Other ABC stalwarts are hobnobbing with the AD suggesting moves are already underway to ensure Dr Majoro does not last the distance.