‘There is more to life than politics’

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By Tsitsi Matope

LIFE can be so beautiful as one matures and becomes wiser.

The icing on the cake of life is when that blessed individual has worked so hard for many years and remembered to prepare for life after retirement.

Sadly this is not usually the case with many senior citizens whose struggle for survival begins only a few months after their employers ask for the company car keys, which may also be the only vehicle in their possession.

And when this happens, society is very quick to pass unfavourable judgements on the individual especially when life had showered that individual with numerous blessings which were never utilised to prepare for the future.

But the story is different for Motloheloa Phooko deputy leader of the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL) the story is different.

Dr Phooko is one a master planner whose life today tells the story of a man who has proved to be smart and well ahead of some of his fellow politicians.

In 2015, Dr Phooko retired from government saying he wanted to give the younger generation a chance.

When the RCL bounced back in 2017, together with the other three political parties forming the current coalition government, he had an opportunity to make it into parliament and work in government but turned down the offer saying he wanted to enjoy life and nature at his beautiful home in Lithabaneng.

And this was exactly what he was doing when the Lesotho Times paid him a visit this week.

Creating space for new blood and fresh innovations to contribute to growing the economy was one of the best decisions he ever made, Dr Phooko said.

After working as a medical doctor in private practice for 30 years and an additional 12 years in government holding ministerial positions in health, office of former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and Public Service, Dr Phooko has no regrets.

“I am now looking back and enjoying myself. I am really loving nature and spending time with my animals and working in my fields in Thaba-Bosiu where I have partnered with some local farmers,” Dr Phooko said.

He is one of the few men who resisted the temptation of influential positions that came with Lesotho’s latest political transition, arguing there was more to life than a senior post in government.

“It is good to work in government when you feel there is something you would like to contribute, but let’s not forget that there is more to life than full-time employment. I am grateful for the opportunity I had of working in government, but I am not missing that life because I am very busy here,” he said.

Dr Phooko’s double-storey mansion might attract passers-by but it is not what makes the owner tick. Over the years, all he had ever dreamt of was creating a livestock farm that boasts of all the infrastructure needed to demonstrate that agriculture was exciting and it paid well.

He embarked on a life-changing and inspiring journey, building a well- equipped piggery, chicken coop, barns for dairy cattle, rabbit cages, a cold room, an abattoir, a milk parlour and dairy equipment for milking and processing, greenhouses for special crop production and storage facilities.

Dr Phooko has just begun resuscitating some of the operations he had suspended due to lack of time to focus on the projects. He is proud to show-off his projects, which he is obviously very fond of and is quick to make some calculations of how much money he expects to get when he starts selling the animals and produce.

However, this is not the first time he has reared livestock for sale and run a dairy business. Years ago, Dr Phooko had employed 10 people to help him with his dairy, chicken and vegetable production projects.

He delivered more than 100 litres of milk per day, 50 chickens per week and rabbits each week to his customers.

Currently, he has over 100 rabbits in a large barn equipped with some cages and hopes to start selling them soon. He is also keeping 15 pigs, including a large, white special breed of Yorkshire origin and estimates that when he has fully developed the pig business, he will earn around M40 000 per month. He wants to save the money for his grandchildren to further develop the business when they are old enough. “A wise grandfather leaves seed for his grandchildren. That way, they will continue planting and they will never forget where the seed came from,” he said.

Through the Pinto bean, maize and sorghum he is producing at his farm in Thaba-Bosiu, he hopes to process some of the food and use it to feed his animals.

Dr Phooko owes his sense of hard work and love of farming to his grandmother, ‘Mamokheseng who took care of him when he was growing up in Qacha’s Nek.

The first child in a family of six children, he was born on 12 September 1939 and the young Motloheloa was separated from his parents when his father took up a teaching job in Botswana.

Although his father was a teacher earning a decent salary, his grandmother never made him feel like life was comfortable and easy.

She raised him to understand that life was not a bed of roses, making sure that after school he would join boys his age in herding livestock, working in the fields and picking some bones, which he sold to some shop-owners around the area.

His grandmother would ask him to buy some paraffin or anything he needed at school with the money he got from picking the bones of dead animals in the mountains.

On reflection, Dr Phooko says his grandmother made him who he became in life, including his gentle nature and not being too hasty in making decisions, attributes he said made him wise and successful in life.

“As I grew older, I became very fond of my grandmother such that when I returned on holiday from Israel where I was studying medicine in 1963 and found her sick and alone in Qacha’s Nek, I asked my parents to stay with her in Botswana. I wanted to take care of her, but I was still in school. Throughout my life, I have cherished all her great lessons and wonderful moments I shared with her. I have applied all the knowledge and wisdom she shared and I will never forget her.”

Despite his obviously strong bond with his grandmother, young Motloheloa had to leave her to pursue his secondary education as a boarder at Christ the King and Lesotho High schools in Maseru. It was at the Lesotho High School where he was introduced to politics by his teachers, the founder of the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), Dr Clement Ntsu Mokhehle and the founder of Basotho Freedom Party (BFP) and author, Bennett Makalo Khaketla.

Dr Phooko joined the BCP Youth League and continued to follow politics just like many other young people who, during that time, had championed the cause for the independence of Lesotho.

After Lesotho High School, he worked in the Ministry of Health for two years (1959-1961) before he left the country to study medicine at Hadassah Medical School. It was in Israel where his love for agriculture blossomed following his experience working in cooperative farms called ‘Kibbutz’ during some holidays.

“Israel has a developed agriculture sector. Even as a desert, they invested so much in high-tech irrigation systems and that is what has made them successful,” Dr Phooko said.

After five years, he did his two-year medical housemanship in Zambia.

“My stay in Zambia was most memorable. Zambia was rich at the time because of the copper mines during the era of Dr Kenneth Kaunda. What later bedevilled Zambia was the nationalisation of the mines, a policy change that drove away the investors. At the same time, the price of copper started going down and Zambia started experiencing some economic challenges,” Dr Phooko said.

He returned to Lesotho in 1970 and worked in the Ministry of Health from 1970 to 1974 before he went into private practice, working with some partners in places including Maseru, Leribe, Hlotse and Butha-Buthe.

In 1977, he returned to Maseru and started private practice, working alone until he decided to join politics full-time in 2002.

He contested in the 2002 elections and won the Lithabaneng Constituency Number 36 before his appointment as Minister of Health, a position he held until 2007.

“At that time, social welfare was a department under the ministry of health, which was a burden. We tried unsuccessfully to have the two separated to become two ministries but that was not possible at the time.”

He was transferred to the Prime Minister’s office where he served for five years, before he was fired in 2012 over allegations that he and other Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) heavyweights were plotting to assassinate the then Prime Minister Mosisili.

“The allegation was very funny because the then Prime Minister also happens to be my relative. It hurts me, and even today Ntate Mosisili has not explained why he thought I could do such a thing. It became very serious when at some stage some secret service personnel were tailing me. I took that very seriously and expressed my concerns. My fear was that the secret service might have believed that indeed there was an assassination plot and then eliminate me,” Dr Phooko said.

He remained in the LCD when Ntate Mosisili broke away to form the Democratic Congress (DC) in 2012 and later joined the RCL in 2013, where he is currently the party’s deputy leader.

“I love politics and I think I will always enjoy being part of the actors who decide the path Lesotho should take. My participation now is a bit laid back. I basically help in developing strategies to make the party attractive to young people and women because we are led by a strong woman, Minister of Labour, Keketso Rantšo.”

He lamented the country’s politics of divisions, which he said have succeeded in separating Basotho and fuelling hatred and instability. However, Dr Phooko said despite differences in ideologies and political affiliation, Basotho have a lot in common. “The common denominator is that we are all Basotho and that should bring us together no matter our different political parties,” Dr Phooko said.

He further said due to conflicts that have characterised the politics of Lesotho, he did not wish any of his three children should join politics. “I also don’t think they are keen on politics. They want to pursue their own fields and that makes me comfortable in view of the messy political situation in the country,” he said.

Dr Phooko has married to ‘MaPhooko since 1972. They have two sons Phooko, an architect based in the United States of America, Nkola who is based in South Africa and Puleng, a dietician and businesswoman based in Cape Town.

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