MASERU – He was last week booted out of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s cabinet, not to mention the fact that he is the secretary-general of the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) executive committee whose election is being challenged in the court, but former Minister of Law Lebohang Hlaele says he is unfazed by the brouhaha, with his demeanour suggesting he is ready to take the bull by the horns.
In fact, Hlaele who is also a Senator and 21 other ABC MPs this week petitioned ABC leader Thabane to rise above the storms of the conflict in the party and strive for its unity, including ensuring the holding of parliamentary caucus meetings, otherwise they would withdraw financial support from the party.
Hlaele was again this week instructed by Secretary-General of the outgoing ABC committee Samonyane Ntsekele, whose NEC has been given powers by the court to hold office pending finalisation of the main case wherein the election that resulted in Hlaele emerging as SG is being challenged.
It was against this background that Public Eye’s Bongiwe Zihlangu caught up with Hlaele for a wide-ranging one-on-one interview. Below are excerpts from the interview:
Public Eye: You are the new ABC secretary-general, although the outcome of your election is now being disputed. Can you share with us your plans for the party though your new committee’s victory has been challenged in court?
LEBOHANG HLAELE: You will recall that my background is that of a trade unionist. As such, a trade unionist acts based on the political situation at a particular time. In 2014 when I was elected ABC deputy secretary-general, I thought that my and the secretary-general’s (Samonyane Ntsekele’s) understanding of politics was on the same wavelength.
It was only in 2015 that I realised that we were not on the same level. When I was elected in 2014, I came into the committee with an open mind. I loved the ABC and believed that the party would only grow under proper administration.
And, good administration in politics is informed by one’s in-depth knowledge of politics, and that there’s a particular direction in which an organisation should be steered.
Nothing beats working together as a collective. There’s no way that any one person can make a success of the agenda given the NEC by the conference.
Remember, we come from our constituencies to the conference as mere nominees. The conference then pronounces itself through the leadership it elects to be the NEC.
That says we are the party’s leadership whose primary mandate is to grow the party and maintain its unity. The conference does not instruct one person to build the party but the whole committee as a collective.
We should all understand this principle, and that if we grow up as a party, we should all claim the victory. If we fail, we should also own up to our mistakes.
The office of the SG is the party’s engine and its pillar of strength. When you are united and the party is growing, the praise goes directly to the SG.
There are people who are card-carrying members of a party while others are just sympathisers who vote for it for one reason or the other, perhaps because they love Ntate Thabane as a person or are attracted to the party because of its policies hence they choose to vote for it.
But you are not a member of that political party. You are only a sympathiser.
So, when as the SG you tell us that the party is growing, you have to demonstrate that. You have to show us numbers to prove the party is growing. Whether the party is growing or declining, there must be numbers in that regard.
That way, you will be able to establish the interventions needed to revive it or where to tighten some screws to maintain its growth. That’s how a party grows.
P.E: Have you always aspired to be ABC SG or did it just come by chance?
L.H: I realised in 2016 that I would be the ABC secretary-general in 2019. And I worked hard for it because I had already established that the former SG (Ntsekele) believed more in his abilities than working with the rest of the NEC as a collective.
He is a person who would rather work alone than engage his colleagues, which to me has to be his greatest downfall in politics. You can address your personal or family issues on your own. But you cannot do that in politics.
In politics we are from different backgrounds and schools of thought. The SG has to be in a position to engage all his colleagues and draw from their contribution in order to build the party going forward.
I took an informed decision and worked hard from 2016. I tried to advise him that we should work together to attain maximum results but he shunned me. I decided that from then on, I would share my thoughts with him, be cooperative where it was necessary and just step back where I was not wanted. The strategy that I adopted was to agree with him instead of taking him on.
There were people who were adamant that I should challenge some of the decisions he made which were detrimental to the party. But I told them that the ABC constitution clearly stipulated that the deputy SG would only assume duties of that office in the absence of the SG.
It means that I can only assume duties with his consent. But in our case, the doors were closed even in his absence. I could not do anything even when he was not around.
P.E: There is a letter addressed to you from the office of the SG, instructing you to show cause why you should not be suspended for fraudulently using the ABC stamp without the authorisation of the SG. What do you make of that?
L.H: Let me tell you something. Here in the ABC, there’s no law prescribing what we should and should not do as the NEC. There’s no law that separates the duties of the SG from that of the leader, etc.
When we assumed office in 2014, we pushed out the likes of former SG Futho Hoohlo and Sam Rapapa. We demanded that they hand over the administration of the party to the new committee and even wrote them letters to that effect, but they refused to vacate office. We eventually decided to just ignore them and execute our mandate as the new committee.
This was because there is nowhere in the law where it says the new committee cannot assume office if the old one refuses to vacate. The former SG Ntsekele then decided to get a new ABC office stamp with his signature inscribed.
He did that on his own. The NEC did not instruct him to do that. He did not even report to the committee that he would be getting such a stamp for himself. I only saw it on letters with the ABC letterhead. I for one took it as him sending the message that he was now in charge.
The same thing happened in this case. On the 11th after we were served with papers challenging our election as the new NEC, we decided to engage the services of Adv. Khotso Nthontho as our legal representative, as the legally and newly elected committee of the ABC.
I therefore do not see a problem with me obtaining a stamp with my signature on it, in a similar manner he (Ntsekele) did back in 2014. Besides, he also did not see anything wrong with it. It simply said there should be a difference between the old and the new SG. Unlike Mr Ntsekele, Mr Hoohlo used an ordinary stamp with no personalised signature.
So, Hlaele goes to get a personalized office stamp like his former SG Ntsekele did, but he (Ntsekele) develops goose-bumps when I follow in his footsteps. I had to go get my own stamp as the new SG.
There was no way that I would, at the time, ask to use his stamp when his term of office has expired. ABC supporters would see me as a weakling. Besides, when I used that stamp, the court had not yet decided that the old NEC should hold fort pending finalisation of the main case.
P.E: You do remember that there was an argument advanced that the new committee could not assume office until it was properly blessed by the leader and after the official closure of the ABC elective conference. It was as if those were prerequisites for the new NEC to resume its duties. Can you unpack it all?
L.H: There is no such thing. It does not exist. Those were just excuses advanced by certain people, thus abusing the leader’s name. The leader himself knows that doesn’t exist. The leader is part of the people who contested elections. If he did not want to contest, he could have requested that his name be omitted from the ballot.
So when our committee’s term of office expired, his term expired as well. The only difference between him and this committee is that he was elected unopposed. But that does not give him power even in the slightest, to think that he is above the collective.
The only difference is that in the constitution, it is stipulated that he has more powers than the rest of the committee members. But even that power he cannot abuse or impose on us as and when he feels, to maintain that state of collectiveness.
After we have decided as the NEC, we do not attribute it to the leader as an individual. Even if a decision made by the NEC did not sit well with the leader, once it is made we all must own it.
So, the fact that the elective conference was not officially closed, has got absolutely nothing to do with that conference’s outcome. The conference was convened for the election of the new NEC by ABC delegates from the party’s 80 constituencies.
The election of a committee in that regard is a blessing in itself. The conference is above the leader and the party and it can even remove the leader. The conference has elected a new committee and the bottom line is that it has already blessed the new committee.
That committee was elected by ABC delegates and therefore belongs to the party. All that is being said does not exist. Ntate Thabane is a seasoned politician who is very clear in his thinking.
I know that he does not really agree with what is happening right now. It’s just that there are people who hide behind him in order to get away with their dirty deeds. I believe he will not contradict them because they have their own agenda.
The leader will speak up at the right time.
There’s no leader who is going to welcome or bless members of a committee of which he is part. How is it that this moment he is elected leader, then next thing he welcomes others into the committee?
P.E: Speculation is rife that the ABC leader is turning a blind eye on the ensuing shenanigans because he does not feel comfortable working with members of the new committee, but you also seem to defend him at every turn. What then do you make of the allegations?
L.H: I am not in the least defending the ABC leader. Not at all. But I can assure you that I support him immensely. You know very well that Ntate Thabane is not only my leader and Prime Minister, but my father-in-law as well. It says my support for him is three-pronged, whereas other people’s support of him is from the perspective of him being ABC leader and premier.
Isn’t it that at some point being ABC leader and premier will cease, but my relationship with him will lead to the grave when God decides to separate us? He is my father. But I do not support him religiously.
Even my mother who gave birth to me does not enjoy that kind of support from me. I do not have support that is blind. My support is based on facts. I need to be assured of reasons why I should support you and once that’s out of the way, I will support you to the very end. If it means I go down with you, then so be it. The reasons why I support you should also be those which I can openly share with others.
I support Ntate Thabane because I know his politics. Whether he likes this committee or not, let’s live it with him as a person because perhaps he has his reason. But as a leader you don’t choose people to work with in the NEC, as a matter of principle. Striving to do that is demonstration of sheer weakness in politics, which clouds one’s leadership style with questions. It says even if you viewed that person as a shrewd politician, that view goes out through the window.
You do not choose the leadership with whom to work in the NEC. As a leader you are elected because you demonstrate leadership qualities. You cannot say you want to work with your friends. If that happens then you are no more a leader. You now want to dictate the terms and conditions under which we should execute our duties. The bottom is that they will label you a dictator.
But Ntate Thabane is nowhere close to that. He is not a dictator but a democrat. He might want to work with you and not me as a person. But in politics, even if he wants to work with me and not you, there are no two ways about it. He must work with whoever has been elected like him. But once he seeks the opposite, then it means we have deviated from democratic politics.
P.E: You are signatory to a letter signed by 21 MPs demanding, among others, that the ABC leader rises above the ensuing conflict in the party to unite the warring factions and ensure that the party’s parliamentary caucus meetings are revived. In the same letter you declare withdrawal of your financial support to the party as you don’t believe in the administration of the old NEC. Please elaborate.
L.H: You know that I am a Senator until 2022. I have also noted earlier that when a person presents an issue to me, they have to persuade me to support them. In this regard I am persuaded that we need to find any possible way to restore stability in the ABC and fight the confusion that could lead to the demise of our party.
And when one talks of demise, I am spurred into action because I want to find an amicable political solution to the challenges we are facing.
We are simply saying to the leader, since you are the only one who was elected unopposed, you are the only person entrusted with the mandate to foster unity in the ABC.
Failure to do that on your part, we say, will compel us to withdraw our financial support to the party. Why would I keep on contributing part of my hard-earned salary to the party when there is no accountability? How do I account to my wife and family? The best temporary measure would be to halt that support until the situation has been stabilised.
The leader should go all out to dispel rumours that he is unreliable in that he says one thing but does the other. He should rise above it all, cease with the game of hide-and-seek if he has been doing it.
P.E: Last but not least, you talk of being a senator until 2022. Is that to say you will not be vacating your seat in the senate, and that unlike others before you, you will not be coerced into vacating like what happened previously with fired ministers who were also senators? Two cases in point being former forestry minister Mamotsie Motsie and former public works minister Chakela?
L.H: There was never a condition when I was appointed to the Senate. Neither was I told that I was being appointed to the house en-route to cabinet. When the PM appointed me to the Senate, he told me that I was going to be there for the next five years.
If there is a request that I vacate for someone else, I will surely decline. It’s not negotiable. I am politician. Even a promise of a deployment to the foreign missions will not entice me. Beyond 2022 it’s something else.
P.E: Speculation has gone into overdrive that the events unfolding in the ABC signal a split. How then do you allay people’s fears, that ABC is not headed for a split, if the party does not put its house in order?
L.H: The ABC is different from other political parties. It’s definitely not headed for a split. Indeed, supporters have been angered by the fact that there’s a group of men and women who disrespected their decision.
But is that anger enough to lead to a split? No! There will not be a split in the ABC. Remember when we went to the Quthing policy conference the international community had advised that we cancel it because they feared a split.
The ABC leader still has that magnetic ability to pull things together. He can read the situation now and decide which direction to take. And when he does that, all ABC supporters will be drawn back into the party. He can unite this party. I don’t know what will happen in 2022.
But as we speak, there’s not a threat of a split. Even the MPs who have made petitions, they are just raising their concerns and saying those are some of the measures they can take if the playing field is not levelled. Despite the challenges, we are one in that we yearn for a united ABC all over Lesotho.
I therefore urge supporters to exercise patience and tolerance. A split will not benefit us in any way.
P.E: What would you like to say in closing?
L.H: That you did not delve much into why I was removed from cabinet. You didn’t ask me whether it was due to poor performance or any other reason. Well, in early January the PM summoned me and asked what I made of my performance. I told him that I could not tell as I could not assess myself.
Usually, where I worked I assessed my staff of 15, hence I expected him to say something about my performance. I said all I could tell him was that I thought my performance was still on point.
He then asked me if I had ever asked myself why he appointed a minister, to which I said no. He then said it was because he wanted me to improve on my performance. I will not delve into the turn our conversation took thereafter. But I can tell you that from that moment, I knew that there was something. Hence I have said before that I saw it coming. The word performance had never come up before in our conversations.
I remember in late 2018 that during one of our conversations I asked why he had never summoned me to discuss my performance as was being done with others. So, I saw it coming, I expected it.
On Monday 17 February, I was privy to the fact that the leader and ABC SG Ntsekele had a meeting where they were finalising my letter of expulsion.
On Monday I put together my team and informed them that in the next day or so I would be receiving my marching orders. I told them it was time for me to pack my things because I was going and they couldn’t believe it.