‘We need all hands on the deck to succeed’
NOTHING beats spending a cold, rainy morning over a steamy cup of coffee with a wonder-politician who dreamt it and had it all.
He might have been born and raised in the high mountains of Mokhotlong and Butha-Buthe but the Minister of Tourism, Motlohi Maliehe, learned to stubbornly push his way past those who thought by growing up in the capital city, they had the best ingredients to make it in life.
One thing you can never miss even upon encountering him for the first time, is how this new broom at the ministry of tourism, but he is so articulate to a point of easily selling Lesotho to a tourist who initially planned to visit South Africa or any other destination.
Mr Maliehe is full of colourful stories about Lesotho which he promised to share with tour guides and it is this rich heritage that he believes makes the Kingdom a unique tourist destination.
Just as he is about to explain who Motlohi Maliehe really is, he bursts into laughter before explaining how, as a young man, he had always dreamt of becoming either a priest, geologist or politician.
“I believe I had it all. I did not become a geologist but worked in the mines in South Africa, and through my work, I had the opportunity to explore what geology was all about. I did not become a priest, but I have interacted with them and I have been a Christian all my life. So finally, I became a politician, but feel so blessed to have had some form of experience in everything I wanted to become,” Mr Maliehe said in an interview this week.
A man so easy-going but equally firm and serious when duty calls, Mr Maliehe feels he is in a strategic place to show the world Africa’s best-kept secret, Lesotho – a beautiful kingdom floating in the sky.
The minister says there is something so magical about the tourism sector, which embraces all people and makes them happy.
Growing up in the mountains, it is not a surprise that he is a man who appreciates the character and boldness reflected by the rugged mountains of Lesotho.
“God blessed countries with different gifts, knowing we will have the capacity to use our unique environments and natural resources to sustain ourselves. I don’t see why we cannot create magical facilities on top of Qeme Plateau to show-off what we can do with our mountains and bring out the best of our waterfalls. I am for development, but I also think natural beauty is very attractive. In that spirit of including various products in our tourism package, we should also appreciate that we cannot add anything but to only preserve the unspoilt Letsa-La-Letsie wetland which the world is yet to discover in Quthing,” Mr Maliehe said.
Born the first child in a family of three in Molumong in Mokhotlong district on 28 September 1958, incidentally a day after World Tourism Day, the father of two sons and a daughter, spent all his childhood herding livestock in the mountains.
No wonder he had wanted to become a geologist as he started interacting with some of the astounding physical features of the earth at a very tender age.
However, he says the death of his father, Moferefere Maliehe, when he was still young affected him deeply as he had to grow up without that much-needed influence.
“There are a lot of things I wanted my father to teach me and advise me on. I believe I could have been somewhat a better man had my father been there for me. However, I thank God for keeping my mother who had to work so hard to double-up as a mother and father to me, my young brother and sister who are now both late,” Mr Maliehe said.
Yet despite not having a father- figure, his mother insisted that as a Christian, he did not need to go to an initiation school to be trained on how to become a man, as the bible also had some good principles he could follow.
One thing he quickly noticed while growing up, he says, was that Lesotho’s politics was not only vibrant but also very dangerous. His close and extended family were members of the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) which opposed the rule of the then Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan.
As a child, he could not connect how the country was governed had anything to do with his quality of life. His mother, MaMotlohi, was working and brought home enough food and clothes for him and his siblings, but still many people claimed there was something wrong with the then government.
“As I grew older, I began to understand the political situation. By the time I was doing my secondary education at St James and later Butha- Buthe High School, I had become an active youth member of the BCP and was always having running battles with the Mabutoa a Khotso vigilantes who hunted down anyone suspected of involvement in BCP activities.”
With the vigilantes on his heels, Mr Maliehe says life became difficult for him in Mokhotlong. He then decided to stay with some relatives in Butha-Buthe. While hiding in Mokhotlong, the then 20-year-old got a lucky break when a relative secured him a job at the mines in South Africa.
“I worked in South Africa for 16 years, living in Mpumalanga and heavily involved in the politics of South Africa and Lesotho.”
While in South Africa, he was involved in trade unionism and participated in the formation of the National Union of Mine Workers before he was elected the regional chairman. He also participated in the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
“I led a productive life in South Africa, but my heart was always here at home because my family was staying here in Lesotho. I started planning my return after the 1993 elections and came back in 1997,” he said.
Upon his return, he through the ranks in the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) until he contested and won the Butha- Buthe Number 5 Constituency (then called Lipilaneng) in 2002.
“I have been in parliament since then but in 2005, I experienced some problems within the LCD and was suspended for three years,” Mr Maliehe said.
Frustrated by the situation in the LCD, he was one of the political stalwarts who participated in the formation of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) in 2006. “I am a man of the people and that is why, just like my leader, Dr Tom Thabane, I have been elected, unopposed in my party since the time I became a member.”
Before assuming the tourism portfolio, he was, in 2014, appointed Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Correctional Service for a year, in the first coalition government led by Dr Thabane.
He was last year appointed Minister of Forestry, Range and Soil Conservation after Dr Thabane was returned to power.
He says his transfer to the Ministry of Tourism in February this year carries new expectations, particularly after the ministry was identified as one of the key ministries targeted to spur economic development.
He has no doubt that with a committed team in the ministry and at the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC), the sector can achieve so much more.
“Our starting point is to work with others, including some ministries that can contribute to ensuring our tourism becomes even more robust.
“We also need to strengthen our partnership with the private sector. When it comes to marketing the country, we need to do more to come up with new innovations that can amplify our strategies. We are therefore working to try and enhance the LTDC’s ability to market the country through their website and the production of videos that will sell Lesotho as a unique and thrilling destination. It is also good that we are getting some publicity from the big screen as well, the movie Black Panther is one such good example and everybody wants to know ‘where is this country.”
Last week, the minister had a meeting in Durban with the MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs for KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Sihle Zikalala. They discussed ways to strengthen co-operation in tourism and how to improve on accessibility through the introduction of a cable car linking KZN and Lesotho.
“I see great opportunities in these exciting times in the tourism sector. We cannot go it alone without tour guides to take tourists around and tell compelling stories that inspired the development of each facility and the role of the local communities. We will need to train and support new tour guides to fill-in the gap we currently have in the sector.”
He further explains other improvements needed are in the accommodation sector, explaining many tourists are not leaving money in Lesotho because they do not spend much time in the country.
He further said other issues that need to be looked at and discussed for action include the expensive e-visa system which costs $150 for a single entry and $250 for multiple entries. The Lesotho e-visa is comparatively more expensive than most African countries, including top tourist destinations such as South Africa, Morocco and Mozambique.
“I am positive that we can discuss all these issues with the Ministry of Home Affairs as partners who are planning and working together for one government and one people and for the same vision – to develop our economy. We want a tourism boom and as a ministry, we will not be ashamed to attribute our success to collaboration with our partners in and outside government,” Mr Maliehe said.