NAZARETH –Two Nazareth schools have been left without water and their students and teachers fearing for their lives due to a pasture dispute which has been raging in the area for more than two decades.
John Mount High School and Masapong Primary School had their water cut last month allegedly after some Ha Ponoane herd-boys vandalised pipes which supply Ha Ntsi villagers, their “enemies”, with the precious liquid following a mass brawl over grazing.
Unfortunately, the schools are located between the feuding villages and use the same pipes with Ha Ntsi to get their water from Ha Ponoane.
This week, Police Minister Monyane Moleleki, who is also a Member of Parliament for the area, met with the leadership of the feuding villages in an effort to find a lasting solution to the fighting.
According to John Mount High School Head of Mathematics and Science, Maqoni Malebanye, the situation had become dangerous for the students and teachers as some Ha Ponoane herd-boys were now harassing them and grazing their livestock in the schoolyard, where the animals would eat vegetables the learners would have cultivated as part of their lessons.
“The fight between Ha Ponoane and Ha Ntsi villages has left us fearing for our lives. Students are being threatened by the herd-boys who defiantly graze their animals in the schoolyard, and insult us at every given opportunity,” Ms Malebanye said.
The dispute, she added, had since resulted in pipes supplying water to the school and Masapong being vandalised.
“The wetland supplying water to our school, Masapong and Ha Ntsi, is located in Ha Ponoane and every time there is a fight between the two villages, we pay the price. Ha Ponoane villagers always vandalise the pipes as a way of punishing Ha Ntsi villagers, and everytime this happens, we are left without water because we use the same pipeline.
“What is even more scary is that of late, there have been threats that the water is going to be poisoned. Ha Ponoane herdboys also graze their livestock in our schoolyard; they let the animals eat vegetables our Form C and Form E students would have cultivated for their final examination projects. If you dare talk to the herd-boys, they will insult you and threaten to beat you up, so we now look at them and don’t say anything.
“But this interference has become a huge inconvenience to the students, in addition to the humiliation we are being subjected to on a daily basis by the herd-boys.
“We once put a fence around the school, but the herd-boys took it away and built their live-stock kraals with it.”
According to Ms Malebanye, two years ago, the herd-boys attacked two female teachers at the school, but no one had been prosecuted for the assault.
“The attack happened right at the entrance to the school, and the teachers were robbed of their belongings in broad daylight. Since then, relations between the school and the herd-boys have been tense; our electricity equipment is always vandalized during holidays and we suspect it’s the same herd-boys behind all these problems.
“This time around, when we opened the school on 26 January, we were forced to send the students home by lunchtime as there was no water for the children. But now the situation is a bit better because some community members managed to patch-up the vandalized pipes, but the water comes in trickles so we are still faced with a huge challenge ,” Ms Malebanye said.
Explaining what prompted the feud, Area Chief Makhaola Theko on Monday said Ha Ponoane herd-boys were to blame.
“This fight was started by a Ha Ponoane herd-boy who had been found grazing his livestock on a farm in Ha Ntsi. The landowner didn’t take kindly to this and asked the herd-boy to leave. Apparently, the herd-boy told the man that he was not utilizing the farm and refused to go,” Chief Theko said.
The herd-boy then called for help after more Ha Ntsi men demanded that he vacates the farm, Chief Theko added.
“When they came, the Ha Ponoane herd-boys started assaulting the Ha Ntsi men with fighting sticks, and broke the landowner’s hand in the process. The John Mount High School principal then drove to Ha Matela Police Station where he reported the fighting and sought assistance.
“When the police came, they fired warning shots and the herd-boys drove away their cattle but left their sheep and goats behind. These were taken away by the police and the following day, the Ha Ponoane village chief came here saying the police had attacked his people and seized their animals. I advised the chief to go back to his office and write a letter to the police requesting the release of his subjects’ livestock.
“I later learnt that the chief didn’t write the letter and that same night, some Ha Ponoane men vandalised pipes which supply Ha Ntsi and the two schools with water.
“It’s unfortunate that the water project was financed by the World Food Programme to the tune of M200 000, and vandalizing it will discourage donors from helping communities in need.
“And after realising what the Ha Ponoane men had done, Ha Ntsi villagers reacted by beating-up Ha Ponoane residents each time they came to their area for errands such as shopping,” Chief Theko said.
“However, we have sat down as affected villagers and come up with a plan to put an end to this problem. We formed a committee of councillors and chiefs and looked at the pasture fight because Ha Ponoane villagers have been going to Ha Ntsi and harvesting fodder without asking for permission, and this has been going on for a long time. We have since been calling for public gatherings in an effort to end this problem.”
On Monday this week, the committee held another public gathering to address the bitter skirmishes.
“Before today’s meeting, we held another public gathering in Mantsatlala village last month where students from the two schools held placards on which they had written their grievances regarding the dispute and water situation, and how they are being affected by the fighting,” Chief Theko said.
The chief said the situation had become so volatile that Ha Ponoane construction workers and John Mount students were attacked last month on their way to their respective engagements.
Meanwhile, Monday’s public gathering was called by Mr Moleleki after the minister witnessed one of the fights on his visit to the area last week.
“We believe that today’s meeting will put an end to this matter and the police have informed me that their investigations are almost complete and suspects would soon be arrested and brought before the courts.”
Asked if prosecuting this matter was not going to compromise efforts to bring peace between the two villages, Chief Theko said the law needed to take its course.
“I don’t think this will worsen the situation because just today, Ha Ponoane villagers suggested solutions to this problem; they said there was urgent need to form a herd-boys’ association because they are not being involved in efforts to find a lasting solution to this matter.
“They said their fighting was because they had their own understanding of issues and language, so training would help them be part of the broader society.
“We should not neglect certain groups within our villages and as chiefs and leaders of this country, we need to set a conflict-management example, like we did today.”
During his visit to John Mount High School on Monday, Mr Moleleki told the Lesotho Times that he had decided to something about the situation because it was getting out of hand.
“I didn’t come here as a government official but rather, as a resident of this constituency because if I can address them as Police Minister, I would talk about handcuffs, holding cells, prosecution and arrest and I cannot do that to my people. That is why I simply asked them to make peace with each other,” Mr Moleleki said.
The minister emphasised the importance of building friendship and mutual understanding between the communities, while also proposing joint sporting events between the warring villagers.
“Right there, where we held a public gathering, we are opening an orphanage which will cater for the needs of all deserving children around Machache and this is one of the uniting mechanism we will use,” Mr Moleleki said.
“We are also opening a special music school right there at the orphanage, which should be up and running around July/August this year.”
Mr Moleleki also said he would ensure John Mount High School students are safe while efforts to ensure peace in the area are in progress.
“The police will be coming here until Easter to work with the school management and give everybody there peace of mind.”
On his part, Chief Mohau Pholo of Ha Ponoane village on Tuesday told the Lesotho Times that he welcomed the peace initiative, and conceded his subject had started the latest round of clashes.
“Have you ever heard the proverb, Thutsoana e chesa hlaaha? (one matchstick burns the veld). It is true that one of our herd-boys went to Ha Ntsi to graze his livestock. He then called for help, resulting in the violence which has left schoolchildren and their teachers fearing for their lives,” Chief Pholo said.
The suspected trouble-maker, he added, had since disappeared.
“No one has seen him since that day, and the police are looking for him,” he said.
Chief Pholo further said the feuding had brought fear among the residents, with the most affected being schoolchildren.
“Just yesterday, I saw schoolchildren waiting for public transport in the middle of nowhere as they are now afraid of the herd-boys. And this morning (Tuesday) at around 5am, the police arrested a group of suspects from both villages and I think this will put an end to this problem.”
However, Chief Pholo said both sets of villagers were to blame for the violence.
“The police have realised that Ha Ponoane villagers have been wronged before and their mistake was seeking revenge instead of reporting their issues to the relevant authorities. In this case, instead of reporting their grievances, they resorted to cutting pipes supplying water to Ha Ntsi, leaving two schools without water.
“But our problem with Ha Ntsi started way back when we fought over boundaries and based on what their chief said yesterday during the public gathering, this is still a problem. I think the only solution to our problems is for me and Chief Thamae to sit and talk chief-to-chief.”
On his part, Chief Thamae Thamae of Ha Ntsi said it was time Ha Ponoane residents respected boundaries set to separate the two villages.
“It is true that I said the main problem is the boundary which was not fair to us; the boundary was set a long time ago by our forefathers but we accepted it as it was. But what is more disturbing is that despite the fact that we were cheated, Ha Ponoane herd-boys still come to our village and graze their livestock on our farms, beating up anyone who tries to stop them,” Chief Thamae said.
“We have cases that took place in 2001, but which have not been prosecuted to this day. At times, people take the law into their own hands with the belief that the wheels of justice are not turning at all, but that is no excuse for one to break the law.”
There was no immediate comment from the police regarding the skirmishes.