MASERU – He might have retired as a judicial officer but Judge Semapo Peete continues to contribute meaningfully towards effective administration of justice in the country. He is currently working with the National Reforms Authority (NRA) as a Judicial Advisor. After 23 years on the High Court bench, Judge Peete took an early retirement in July 2020 “because I wanted to do something more challenging than granting people divorce or sending the guilt to jail. I am born a soft-hearted person but I am brave and I fear no one but my King.”
He says he did it his own way and has no regrets nor compassion. His legal journey started with the then University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS), now the National University of Lesotho (NUL) in 1967. He then proceeded to Edinburg University from 1969 until 1971 where he obtained his LLB degree before attaining a Masters of Law (LLM) at the College-University of London in 1972. In the same year, he worked as a prosecutor at the government’s law office until 1988 and remained in the practice and started lecturing at NUL until 1997 when he was called to the bench.
He sadly lost his wife a year after being called to the bench and has lived a rather lonely life “but I strive to enjoy life despite loneliness and other odds in life.” Appointment as a judge is one of the highest offices in the land. Judge Peete describes it as “a sacred office of honor, responsibility and accountability under the oath of office. It is no bed of roses and often thankless, it involves great sacrifice, loneliness and long hours of hard work.”
He says judges remain human beings who must display integrity, fairness, impartiality, courtesy, honesty, rectitude, courage (no fear, no bias and no prejudice). However, he says these features are a tall order which are today very rare and not easy to achieve and even emulate. Like any other institution, Justice Peete asserts that the judiciary is not spared challenges and that these include impartiality but says it is not absolute. For him, he says he has a thick skin and maintains that he did it his own way with “no regrets and no compassion.” His career is a very difficult one where one has to shelve emotions in order to successfully do the work.
As a prosecutor Judge Peete says he prosecuted his Peka High School friends, charging them with treason. “Friendship and justice don’t mix,” he states. Over the 23 years on the bench Justice Peete presided over many cases, each unique on its own but some of the controversial cases he presided over include; the famous Lekhoaba citizenship case, Khethang Tema Baitšokuli right to life, 1/3 women electoral representation, Rastafarians’ right to smoke ganga, right to hold marches, Monna Thapo case, divorces and military arrests which he says all demanded deep introspection and impartiality for judicial sense.
He recalls an incident when a convict he sentenced came to him when they met and said he (Judge Peete) was right to have sent him to jail. “I was so moved; I even gave him transport money back home.” In the exercise of his judicial function, Judge Peete says he learnt that facts are more important and should never be forced to fit a legal principle, often of a foreign origin. He warns against attacks geared towards the judges and the judiciary saying those who launch the attacks should think before they insult judges.
“Everywhere in African countries, judges are held in high respect and honored, we have to change our mindsets. I always say a political problems need political solutions. The I-will-see-you-in-court syndrome must be discouraged.” He says justice and party politics are no birds of the same feather. According to him, a judge is never always correct in his judgement as a wrong or dissenting judgment can in future be proven correct. As a judicial advisor at the NRA, he says he dreams of a judiciary with a new look, a new face and a judiciary with new cadre of judges trained in court craft, law and court techniques.
“I dream of a decentralised judiciary managed by Basotho men and women who are not only brilliant and competent but are also fit for the job. “Those chosen to lead the institution,” he warns, “should avoid political vitriol, arrogance, hatred and think of themselves as redeemers of Basotho. “No living human being is born a future judge, judgeship is the zenith of a legal career insulated against common gluttony for wealth and high office. “It is a rare honour to those who deserve judgeship; they are nobody’s person and can’t be manipulated like a robot. It requires legal and jurisprudence scholar.”
Despite his job as His Majesty’s judge, Justice Peete says he remained polite and civil not only towards his colleagues but every other person. “I have many friends of all types who, in turn, like me and continue to call me Judge even now and I love it and enjoy it. I feel proud to meet them in the malls, in church, at funerals, even where only men meet.”