Women, you are the change that we seek: Seutloali

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AT just 13 years old in 1998, Machere Seutloali was expelled from boarding school for bringing her parents’ Basotho National Party (BNP) regalia. She was also accused of being the ringleader of a group that sang political songs in the dormitories and making political speeches mimicking the party’s late leader, Evaristus Retšelisitsoe Sekhonyana.

In 2016, Seutloali broke patriarchal barriers when she was elected as the first woman to hold the coveted post of BNP youth league president. She served for two years until 2018.

She had been included on the party’s proportional representation (PR) list ahead of the 2017 elections. She had to wait for her chance to enter parliament as there others ahead of her on the party’s PR list.

That opportunity finally came her way former BNP leader, Thesele ‘Maseribane, resigned from parliament in September 2021, when he was appointed Lesotho’s ambassador to Italy.

Lesotho Times (LT) Special Projects Editor, Bongiwe Zihlangu sat down with Ms Seutloali for a wide-ranging interview on her political background and experiences as a female politician among other things.

Below are excerpts from the interview which is part of our Women in Politics series:

LT: Who is ‘Machere Seutloali and how did you get where you are today?

Ms Seutloali: I am a Mosotho woman in her 30s. I literally grew up in the BNP as my family has staunchly supported this party since time immemorial. I was actively involved in the party from 1998 when I was just 13 and not yet eligible to vote. I remember taking my parents’ party regalia to my boarding school. I was a ringleader of some sort and would sing political songs and call myself BNP leader, Retšelisitsoe Sekhonyana. That got me into a lot of trouble leading to my suspension. The school authorities felt I was a bad influence on other kids. BNP flows in my veins, it is who I am.

I was elected to the BNP youth league as deputy secretary-general in 2011. Then in 2016 I was elected the first female president of the party’s youth league. I remain the only BNP female youth league to date. I don’t have to remind you that I am a mover and a shaker (chuckles naughtily).

In 2012, I was elected as the youth councillor for Khubetsoana and thereafter I went on to become the district treasurer of the same area. I have always had the desire to speak up in support of youth empowerment and development. In 2013, all youth councillors were roped in for the establishment of the Commonwealth Youth Council where we were each assessed on merit by the UNDP and the Ministry of Gender, Youth, Sports and Recreation, on the topic of ‘Youth Development Index’.

I excelled there and was made the Chief Delegate for the Commonwealth. Here, I had the opportunity to ratify and adopt the first constitution of the Commonwealth Youth Council. During the first elections I was appointed the First African Representative, working together with those from the Caribbean, Pacific, Africa and Asia among others.

In 2015, at the age of 29 I contested elections in the Khubetsoana constituency under the BNP banner. I did not win but managed to get some numbers. I contested in the same constituency under the same party in 2017 but still I did not win.

In 2017, I was one of the Basotho youths who represented Lesotho at the National Youth Parade in Moscow, Russia where young people from 189 countries had convened. It was the World Festival for Youths and Students by the World Federation for Democratic Youth.

I was an international election observer in Russia in March 2018.

In 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I entered a SADC Youth Committee contest, and I was one of the people chosen after some background checks. I was then appointed co-chair of the SADC region.

On 10 September 2021, I took an oath as MP after my former leader, Thesele ‘Maseribane, was appointed ambassador to Italy.

But more than anything I am farmer; I am into commercial farming and horticulture. I sell my produce to the public and the demand is just too high. And being an MP has put me in a position to now maximise my produce, to invest more.

LT: How do you find parliament, especially as a female MP?

Ms Seutloali: I have discovered that there is a big challenge in parliament. I am not only a female but one of the youngest MPs. There are issues that I am passionate about that I thought I would push for once in parliament. But I quickly learnt that things don’t just happen like that; that one must go through a lot to understand. And it is challenging because it puts one under pressure. There are times when I wish I had the authority to speed things up, such as the passing of draft legislations.

LT: Having gone through the ranks, how would you describe the life of a female politician in Lesotho? 

Ms Seutloali: I wouldn’t exactly call it a disaster. As a society we have our norms. We are a patriarchal society wherein you are judged by a lot of things including your dress code. When I was campaigning for the BNP leadership post, someone asked the ladies why they were not voting for me. To my dismay, they replied that it because I wear short dresses. The message therein was that being a woman disqualified me from being elected but a man can wear shorts and still be voted for. The message essentially is that I shouldn’t dare dream of going to the beach in my bikini. I should just wear my Seshoeshoe dress to be acceptable.

Those are just some of the challenges we are confronted with. I can still vividly recall how people tried to deter me, including the leadership, when I contested for the youth league presidency.  I was encouraged to step aside for a man and I wondered why they wanted to make way for him. All because he wore a trousers? There are always rumours that where a woman is involved in leadership, she is there because of who she sleeps with.

LT: So, are you saying that women, especially prominent ones in politics, are defined by who they have relationships with and not what they can do as individuals? That it is not about their achievements and leadership qualities but rather the men close to them?

Ms Seutloali: When a woman contests for a political post or she is holding one, she gets defined by who she is dating and or who rumour says she sleeps with.

The media plays a role in vilifying prominent women in politics. Any woman who is deemed to be close to the leader shouldn’t be given a chance to shine as far as society is concerned. Even when a woman is elected, there will always be talk that it is because the leader pushed for her to be chosen. A lot has been implied about me in the past. ‘Machere must be where she is because she does this with so and so,’ they said. ‘She only got chosen because of her proximity to so and so’. They forget that this person has been with this party all her life; that it was inevitable that at as long as she continued serving, at some point she would rise through the ranks. Even one of my colleagues in parliament had the nerve to ask me who I was in the BNP because he did not know me. I simply told him to go and ask his leader about me because the leader knew who I was.

For a woman to survive in politics, she ought to have a thick skin because this environment is not for the faint-hearted. With us women, it takes a lot to survive. I have been through a lot. I will not go into all the details, but I have endured a lot of pain. Some people know of my name and get the shock of their lives when they meet me. People say a lot of nasty things, from party veterans to family and friends. Even women whom you expect should be holding your hand, will stab you in the back.

Well, I must say that as women from different political parties we always support each other. We even have a female MPs caucus where we deliberate on pertinent issues. We support each other in that space. But within our political parties it’s a nightmare.

There is a new political party that was recently formed, and people are already peddling nasty rumours about female members of that party. There are people who have a problem with female politicians that have just emerged to claim their place in the country’s political landscape. Such people are trying to discourage women from entering politics. When they say these things that are hurtful to their integrity, they forget that these women have families, husbands and children.

Such attitudes have led to women limiting themselves for fear of being labelled and harassed on social media. Imagine the good brains we are losing because a lot of women are holding back. It is a great loss for our country. Women are very powerful and dynamic beings who can multi-task and they possess good communication skills.

LT: Would you say that Lesotho has comprehensive policies that favour women and girls and make this country a safe space for them?

Ms Seutloali: Truth be told, I am one of the people who contributed to fast-track the Counter Domestic Violence Bill, 2021. I believe we have done some things to empower and protect women in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 5 (that calls for gender equality). Then we have the Electoral Act, 2011 under which we have the zebra model, which facilitates for the compulsory inclusion of women on political party lists for PR seats in parliament. There have been attempts in several areas to ensure that women are considered, such as the Lesotho Millennium Development Agency (LMDA) where women are given some points in advance during tender bids. There is a lot going on that is being done in favour of women.

LT: Does your own party BNP have policies to advance women in different areas of their lives?

Ms Seutloali: Mine is a party whose founding principles revolved around the empowerment of women. My party’s constitution is specific that minority groups, including women, must be prioritised and protected. The fact that we have a national women’s committee is indicative of a party that supports women.

LT: But it would seem like women’s committees across political parties are there in name and are only active when there is conflict or factions in the party. What’s your take on this?

Ms Seutloali: You know, it’s only this week that I was discussing the role and effectiveness of women’s leagues with other women. We agreed that many women are just ex-officio members within their parties’ national executive committees (NECs). Most NECs are comprised of men only and that means they are the ones who make decisions for the whole party. Women only make it to such committees as ordinary members. But if we were to use the zebra model where their inclusion in the NECs is made compulsory, we would have thriving parties where women are directly involved in the decision-making. It would strike a beautiful balance and we would be good advocates for gender equality if the numbers on male and female representation in our NECs are equal.

LT: You were a staunch supporter of former BNP deputy leader, Joang Molapo, who has since joined the Alliance of Democrats (AD). The grapevine has it that you did not follow him to the AD because you feared losing your position as next in the PR list after BNP leader, Chief ‘Maseribane. Any truth in that?

Ms Seutloali: (Chuckles) I’m a firebrand. The BNP is in me and I am the BNP. It runs in my bloodstream. Every nerve of me carries BNP blood. I don’t have an option. I cannot go anywhere else. There is no way I will join another political party just because Morena Joang is doing it. Of course, it was my democratic right to support Morena Joang during the BNP leadership contest because of his vision. However, I will not follow him wherever he goes because I do not subscribe to an individual. I subscribe to the organisation that is the BNP Leaders come and go but the party remains.

LT:  Do you have plans to contest for a position in the BNP NEC elections in November 2022?  

Ms Seutloali: All I know is that I aspire to be in the leadership structures of this party but not necessarily as the leader. I would love to be part of the highest decision-making body of the BNP, the NEC. Wherever BNP members find it suitable for me to serve, I will honour the assignment because I am just a servant. I will not decline a nomination.

LT: What is your message to women who have recently entered politics and are learning to navigate the terrain?

Ms Seutloali: To the beautiful and strong women, I say to you that I am very happy who have just entered politics. I am elated that we have a few new female professionals from different disciplines joining politics. So, my message that is that women should not be shaken by any negativity coming your way. There will always be people whose job is to assassinate your character. Keep your eyes on the ball. Be strong and courageous, no matter what people say about you. You are an inspiration to younger women. You are the change that we seek.

 

 

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