‘I learnt from the best…my late father’

IRENE SEME

Born into a family of three children and being the first born, Tlotliso Polaki had to set really high expectations growing up and her parents were very strict. She was one obedient child who had only three things at the center of her upbringing – God, education and business. Tlotliso was born and bred in Maseru in the early 70s and grew up at Moshoeshoe II, Lithabaneng and Ha Matala. Her family originates from lihlabeng tsa Ha Maama, Thaba Chitja, Ha Tlapole.

She credits the fact that she was born to believe in her own smartness as a woman and taught that with education, she could do anything. She is a mother to two beautiful girls whom she says inspire me – one is a medical doctor serving locally and the other is still in high school.

“My early schooling was at Iketsetseng Private School in 1978 and, on completion, I went to ’Mabathoana High School for my secondary schooling. After my matriculation in 1989, I went to the National University of Lesotho and studied towards a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting degree. “I aspired to be a chartered accountant at the time, plans that assumed a secondary position and took a back seat on completion of my first degree. Thereafter enrolled for a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree which I completed in 1997 at NUL,” she says.

She later enrolled for a Masters of Laws (LLM) in Corporate Law degree at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in 2001. Concurrent to advancing her studies, she also completed the LSSA’s compulsory training for candidate legal practitioners in South Africa. Tlotliso comes from a business-oriented family and her late father, Ntate William Lepota, instilled in her and her siblings some of those values that they still uphold today.

Ntate Lepota was also a farmer and property developer so some of Tlotliso’s fond memories relate to how she got introduced to business as she would help out at the family shops on Fridays after school and during school holidays and says that really helped her keep focused on priorities in life. “I remember I would feel envious of some of my friends always partying/clubbing and going to the movies every weekend while I never had that luxury.

“My father wanted of us to experience life from different perspectives. I have very fond memories of us going to my grandparents’ home during school breaks – intention was always to ensure we learn how basic life was like at Thaba-Chitja, living with my cousins who were accustomed to traditional lifestyle and its memories that I will forever cherish. “I learnt how to drive from riding a tractor at the fields where we would be ploughing fields in the company of my father,” she recalls.

Tlotliso says she showed leadership skills at a young age for “I learnt from the best…my late father – it took a lot of initiative on my part to learn from him what leadership is and striving to do best at all times.” “He would say that I should always aspire to achieve better than he did. I am still on that journey and have not surpassed his expectations yet. However, the qualities that were instilled in me, such as the ability to communicate well remains a strong interpersonal skill I cherish and these I started honing from an early age.”

She continues that she found over the years that caring about the needs and hopes of others enables better connection, having grown up understanding that humility is important in her coexistence with others – and inasmuch as she is aware of her strengths and weaknesses, she always yearns to learn and contribute more as such in a way. “I would say being humble as a leader taught me that leadership is all about working for the greater good.”

Tlotliso, who has just been appointed the Ombudsman as the second woman to ever hold the position in the country, studied law by default as back in the days, students never really had career guidance at schools. She says her choice of career was mapped and influenced largely by her late father.

She adds that Ntate Lepota had aspirations for her to become a commercial lawyer and somehow convinced her to enroll for an LLB degree (in August 1994) at a time she was waiting to enroll for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) degree at Witwatersrand University in South Africa the following year.

As she had to wait a further six months prior to the commencement of the Witwatersrand degree, the idea of studying law seemed more appealing then and the ambitions of an MBA at the time fell off and she never looked back.

“My journey as a new lawyer started at the Maseru Magistrate Court as a magistrate back in 1997 and one of the main issues that preoccupied my attention were the criminal and civil trials. The skills used and learnt at trial are transferrable to almost any other area of practice. “The confidence and reputation gained in trying cases is paramount to becoming a strong advocate and negotiator and I learnt the value of all the pre-trial litigation and preparation that goes into any case,” she continues.

In trial, as an adjudicator, Tlotliso had to practice articulating a position confidently and persuasively, to lawyers, prosecutors and the like. She says she was forced to think on my feet, which is also useful outside court settings during meetings, motion proceedings and even when my counterparts asked impromptu questions. “Investing in research to enable me to write well-articulated judgments and rulings was one critical activity within my line of work.

“Practicing and highlighting strong points in the case while mitigating weaker points is a skill that I learnt to utilize even outside meetings and the courtroom in negotiating settlements. Another important factor was that I had to learn to maintain a professional demeanor even when disagreeing with the parties appearing before me. “I am incredibly grateful to have been part of the bench then as it allowed me to gain a lot more experience on the justice system through trial experiences that I learnt firsthand.

“I am now able to try cases in the face of undesirable offers and, most importantly, that I can do so with the knowledge that my decisions will stand. “As law evolves, and as I continue to grow, I will continue to learn the never-ending lessons in our jurisprudence and explore the vast benefits of these experiences.” With regard to failure in the legal profession, she says that it happens to everyone and it can be a good thing as it helps us to learn crucial lessons about practicing law and about ourselves.

She reveals that she has encountered some setbacks in her professional life but notes she often says that everyone gets hit by the bus – “the question is which bus and although I cannot control many adversities, there is one that I have a lot of control over – that is my own perception of my supposed failures. “In my opinion, success is available for everyone including those that were unlucky enough not to avoid being hit by a bus.”

The Ombudsman adds: “In retrospect, judging by the cases I have had to adjudicate over either at court, at tribunals I have chaired over the years prior hereto, my judgments and rulings have never really been challenged. To the best of my knowledge, only one matter was taken up on review to the High Courts of Lesotho from a tribunal I recently resigned from.

“That to me, says the decisions I arrive at are generally correct and sound both from a substantive and procedural point of view – there is no better satisfaction and success than this as an adjudicator.

“Secondly, I operate from principles and I abhor maladministration, corruption at all levels and advocate for timely resolution to disputes. I must say that during my time in the positions I have held, I have always promoted fairness and that best practices should be followed and have never been party to any corrupt practices anywhere.”

Prior to appointment to the Office of the Ombudsman Tlotliso was the Chief Legal Officer to the now defunct NACOSEC, and she says her duties entailed, inter alia, provisioning of legal advice on policy and legislations to the NACOSEC and the Cabinet Task Force Sub-Committee of Ministers on Covid-19 related matters.

They also called for interpreting applicable laws, initiating amendments to the Covid-19 Regulations issued from time to time and channeling to the relevant authorities for promulgation; supporting the stakeholder management team in their engagement with different stakeholders; initiating and reviewing contractual agreements and memorandums of understanding with institutions pursuing similar interests and the like as well as managing litigious matters in general.

“It was not easy operating in circumstances where the NACOSEC was being challenged at every angle, including its legality as an appropriate institutional structure; the restrictive measures caused a lot of hardships and inconvenience to many but Covid-19 was a matter of life and death – government had a duty to control and contain the spread of the virus which required that we all put aside personal comfort and safeguard the nation.

To me, when we look back, there was a dreadful daily toll of deaths for some time but the containment measures introduced saved a lot of lives and limited to a greater extent the spread of the pandemic inasmuch as the effect on individuals and the economy as a whole was catastrophic.

“It really was a time for personal sacrifice and we needed to come together as a nation in exercising a patriotic duty to contain the pandemic and safeguard the nation as a whole – this to me, was the greatest achievement of them all – saving lives!”

She is reluctant to be drawn to the NACOSEC issues at this juncture unless “there are issues related to my current work, I can only point out that the legality of the NACOSEC as an appropriate institutional structure established under the Disaster Management Act No 2 of 1997 was consistently challenged by officials responsible for implementation of decisions of the Task Force Sub-Committee of Ministers to a point that there was a flagrant disregard of directives issued.

“Secondly, the Covid-19 Fund was rightfully managed by the Disaster Management Authority through its chief accounting officer and for the longest time, requisitions made on critical Covid-19 consumables and PPE were not processed, salaries of teams of experts assembled and deployed to the NACOSEC went unpaid for 5 months.”

Due to financial constraints, activities within the strategic plan could not be implemented as they required funding to be released. All these collectively posed a major challenge as it hampered all efforts made in containing and controlling the pandemic at the time.

She says the NACOSEC strategy was premised on two policy considerations; first, saving lives by flattening the curve of infections and reducing the number of people arriving at health centres eliciting Covid-19 symptoms and, secondly, raising the line of resources to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to prevent and control the pandemic. “In my view preventative measures taken went a long way in ensuring that infections were limited and we no longer have people dying in numbers as was the case in 2020 and early 2021.”

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