MASERU – The opposition Alliance of Democrats (AD) led by former deputy prime minister Monyane Moleleki has labeled prime minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro and his deputy Mathibeli Mokhothu cowards and sycophants.
In a scathing statement on Wednesday, AD accused “Majoro and Mokhothu’s administration” of tiptoeing around the sensitive issue of two members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) incarcerated in South Africa.
But Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, ’Matšepo Ramakoae, pushed back saying it was unfortunate that such remarks were made by Dr Mahali Phamotse, a former minister who understands international law.
The two soldiers, Privates Rorisang Moepi and Dumile Tšoeunyane, were arrested at Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, on July 19 last year by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) after they allegedly trespassed into the neighbouring country in pursuit of South African cattle rustlers who had allegedly stolen livestock in Lesotho.
They were detained on charges of illegally entering South Africa, stock theft, robbery and possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition, and have been languishing in jail since then.
“It was our expectation as AD that the office of the prime minister supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations has knowledge of diplomacy,” AD secretary general, Phamotse, said in a statement.
“Prime minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have to fight for the rights and freedom and welfare of Privates Moepi and Tšoeunyane,” Phamotse added.
She is a former Minister of Law and Justice. Phamotse said if Majoro and the ministry of foreign affairs were doing their jobs which includes, among others, overseeing the country’s diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral relations affairs, the two soldiers would have returned to Lesotho a long time ago.
“Very unfortunately, we see the government of Lesotho led by Majoro and Mokhothu turning its back on these soldiers when they desperately need its assistance,” she said.
Phamotse’s remarks were dismissed by Ramakoae who indicated that the government had not turned its back on the soldiers but was doing all it can, under current circumstances, to bring the soldiers home.
“The only problem now is that the matter is in court and I do not understand how she wants us to pull the soldiers out of the South African court,” she said.
She said respect for the courts was paramount.
“They were in court today (Thursday) and government got them a lawyer to defend them. We cannot be accused of turning our back on them. We even negotiated with South Africa at the highest level for their release but we must understand that the matter is before a court,” she said.
Following the two soldiers’ arrest, and in what was seen as a retaliation, Lesotho police in August last year arrested two SANDF soldiers and two other South African border officials who allegedly came into Lesotho to fill up with petrol without passports.
They were accused of contravening Covid-19 travel restrictions. The quartet was charged and remanded in custody but was later released on bail of M1 000 each and a surety of M5 000.
In a statement on August 22, 2020, government announced it had directed the minister of defence to urgently engage with his South African counterpart to facilitate the release of the soldiers.
“Government is concerned about the health and welfare of these LDF officers and will work towards resolving this issue without any further delay,” read the statement.
It added: “Government is confident that due to the excellent relations that exist between the Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, an amicable solution to the issue at hand will be mutually arrived at by authorities of the two countries.”
Mokhothu later led a delegation to South Africa to meet with President Cyril Ramaphosa over the arrest of the soldiers.
Ramakoae yesterday indicated that a visit to South Africa by the deputy prime minister demonstrated the government’s commitment to get the soldiers out of prison.
“But there are protocols to be followed,” she said.
However, Phamotse said in her statement that Mokhothu’s visit to South Africa was not prompted by the detention of Lesotho soldiers in that country but by the arrest of South African officials in Lesotho.
She claimed Mokhothu and his delegation only went to meet Ramaphosa to apologise for arresting South African soldiers.
She further indicated that the only reason Moepi and Tšoeunyane are still detained in the neighbouring country was because the government “does not care about their lives”.
“Perhaps fearfulness, cowardice, fawning sycophancy, and lack of the necessary knowledge of bureaucracy are some of reasons why the soldiers are still detained,” she said.
Ramakoae rebuked Phamotse for using such harsh words.
“It is unfortunate that she used such harsh words. They are just politicking, and very regrettably their cheap politics are misleading the people,” she said. Late last month a group called Basotho Lead Petitioners along with another group, The People’s Forum, together with the soldiers’ families wrote to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) for intervention.
The groups said they approached the SAHRC for immediate intervention over concerns that the two soldiers, detained for months without trial, have been subjected to torture, beatings, humiliation and insults.
“The eight months’ detention of soldiers without trial is punitive and unwarranted. We hope that presumption of innocence is admissible until these soldiers are proven guilty,” read their letter.
This was Basotho Lead Petitioners’ third attempt to arm-twist South African authorities to release the soldiers. In February it gave South Africa a seven-day ultimatum to release the soldiers or face protests. Their letter was submitted to the South African High Commission in Maseru.
“We, therefore, demand the release of our soldiers within seven days of receipt of this letter, before Wednesday 10 February 2021… please note that failure to release the two LDF members within the said date, we shall petition the South African High Commission and other courses may follow,” read their letter.
Earlier in March, Basotho Lead-Petitioners submitted a petition to the South African High Commission demanding the release of two soldiers.
Their petition was received by South African high commission’s first secretary (political) Rudolph Stroebel who promised to pass it on to the relevant department.