The Importance of respect in public affairs

NTHAKENG PHEELLO SELINYANE

Basotho disagree about a whole lot of things, across the gender divide, political and professional identities but everybody agrees that “Monn’a Mosotho ha a ka re ua mo tella ho felile”, meaning “If a Mosotho man thinks you disrespect him, nothing will work between the two of you” or that is the end of all genuine relations he maintained with you.

The word “tella” is taken very seriously, and is not used lightly at all among the Basotho of Lesotho, especially though not exclusively men, in all spheres of life including the professions and public service. It sums up all manner of diminution of dignity of a person. We have other expressions like “o nkuka hannyenyane” meaning that someone takes you lightly and “o nkhella fatše”.

These are rarely said by a third person observing how two others outside him relate to each other, but almost always by one person about how he feels his dignity is diminished by the attitude and conduct of the other towards him.

One expression which is hard to translate, which belongs together with these, is “O bona ke fella kahar’a mahlo a hae”, literally meaning “he thinks I fit into his eyes”, putatively connoting the looker has reduced you to the size of his eyeball, in the image he has assigned you in his mind or her brain.

There are a range of gestures and attitudes that show “ho tella”, a contempt or diminution of a person you’re dealing with, in Sesotho. These include looking somebody up and down, especially at their feet, curiously; staring at as though viewing a strange phenomenon or object; clucking of the tongue; whistling sarcastically; denying them attention by walking or noisily ruffling materials while one is speaking to an audience; walking away while they’re speaking to you; or simply keeping quiet when someone is asking something of you.

It is on this last act that I want to dwell in this comment, and the way it manifests itself, and has become a culture, in the public service of Lesotho. Few things enrage a Mosotho man or woman than to make him sound speaking alone, “like a lunatic”, as they would say. “So I am a madman now? Am I speaking to myself?” And that rhetorical question is certain to be accompanied by a thunder of quick thorough blows.

In situations where such cannot be administered, you can rest assured that a commensurate condemnation has been considered and meted out in the abstract; that in his mind the offended person has consigned you to the same fate.

I have said repeatedly that democracy can be summed up as being about doing someone else’s work in a way that they’d do it themselves if they were not arrested by other commitments and that, for that, accountability is the most important precept of democracy – for only through it can you get to know if you’re still discharging that effort the way your sender would like you to. Yet here at home you get neither.

You don’t get your job done the way you’d prefer that it be done, and you don’t get any explanation as to why it’s being done as it is, sloppily; not to mention an enquiry as to whether you’re pleased at the act.

Our public services are legendarily bad, and we have places which boast generations of notoriously cruel, barbaric services, like the National Manpower Development Secretariat, the Passport and Traffic Departments, the Teaching Service Division, Pensions, Health, and the police who also wantonly kill you.

Ministers, principal secretaries and commissioners and directors have come and gone in these places over the past one and a half generation years of return to democracy, having known of these malpractices from years of their childhood, and they largely repeat and continue the same rot.

Recently I heard a minister wailing on a radio talk show that when they take the defaulting servants by the tail the media cry foul! This was after the talk show host so instigated him to do, following a two-time non-payment of old age pensions when the senior citizens were already on the ground – for which the minister boldly, shamelessly, publicly blamed the servants.

Such blame trading is far too common, and it naturally doesn’t go with any consequences for anyone. Frequently there are no temporary drivers licence papers, vehicle registration plates, passport booklets, pharmaceutical supplies, transport and lighting for police posts…and no explanation from anyone.

And by explanation we don’t mean lightly explaining away things, merely speaking so that you’ve done your beat in turn taking – but providing genuine and valid reasons for why things are as they are. Yet explanations cannot be produced where they don’t exist, and they cannot exist precisely because if they existed, those who have to give them would themselves have to be absent from these places.

Then there’s another practice of people openly refusing to serve, without even making excuses of not having the means to discharge their functions. They just stare you in the face and refuse to serve.

I have heard it being said of the so-called filter clinics, but my personal encounter with it was at the Maseru City Council last October and the citizens I was with said this was not a first. Here the Land Committee, which services the public only once a month, opened the doors around 1030hrs – finding citizens who had been waiting from dawn in some cases for an 0800hrs commencement of services – and attended to a handful of the crowds packed in the corridors for two and a half hours, then broke for lunch.

When it had to resume after 1400hrs it simply walked out and left, leaving the civil servants to tell the raging masses who wanted to eat them raw – some having travelled from the districts many times in vain – that they should return the next month as ‘Bahlomphehi’ (reference to the Councilors) were tired.

Everywhere in the country the Councilors, like the Members of Parliament, are called ‘Bahlomphehi’, literally meaning “the respectable ones” or in practical usage “the honourables”, and they wear this title with a lot of conspicuous public pomp. They’re men and women who asked to be elected so they could scatter to the wind the precipitous filth that the conceited civil servants had brought into the public service.

Their chairperson was a local woman chief, often a symbol of soft, benign power and unbounded tolerance, self-sacrifice and fortitude undergirded by proverbs like “Morena ke khetsi ea masepa” and “Morena ke khomo e chitja”, and “’m’angoana o tšoara thipa ka bohaleng”.

Yet once they converged in the short three-storey air conditioned building of the city council in uptown capital with ever-boiling urns for coffee and biscuits, they felt they were imbued with the spirit of the Lesotho civil service, and must act the part. For our people feel the public service is the space you must come to dump all your wild, beastly instincts, beginning with our elected representatives themselves.

Now what these people did on the day was an example of the acts I listed above as indicative of “ho tella” or an act of contempt, disdain, disrespect and diminution of the dignity of one person by another. They were doing it in group like a herd with mad cow disease, to a citizenry that just stood initially overawed, and then broke into rage; they went mad the same way the Basotho say you reduce a person to a lunatic when you show him or her arrogant silence.

Yet in so doing they rendered themselves no longer respectable and honourable. They had earned the honour and respect that saw them being chosen to public service, but once in that ambience chose to conduct themselves disrespectably and dishonourably.

This herd conduct of the country’s sole municipal council ties in very neatly with the much loved retort by officers when you press on with your right to get service: “Ha ke sebeletse uena u le mong!”, meaning “I’m not serving you alone!” Of course I know, otherwise you’d be in my kitchen, not here ‘hle ‘nake!’

On the contrary you’d gain so much mileage in workplace efficiency and peace instead of this nerve tearing negativity if you assumed you were serving me alone, and thought so of all of us – which indeed you are!

The Lesotho public servants and their bosses, with a few notable exceptions, have no respect for the citizen precisely because they see him or her as a crowd, an unruly mob, a dispiriting dark forest, which in the end isn’t distinguishable from a destructive, frolicking troop of monkeys.

They’re cuddled in a cloud of illusion that by sheer accident of appointment – without underplaying their classroom instruction credentials – this public space is bequeathed to them as their exclusive theatre where everyone else shrinks in significance to an insect.

In their turn, the councilors represented by the MCC Land Committee, in their minds, their collective psyche, are enveloped in a delusion that this is now their space, it has been surrendered to them by the people’s choice; and they can vilify it, desecrate it and defile it, and shear it of all honour and dignity as they like.

That is lack of respect for an old woman with a wooden hoe and cracked heels of in whose name that is done. This bring me to an interview I once had for this paper with a central bank officer about what turned out to be a collusion by a central bank governor and finance minister to enable an Asian textile exporter to not return to Lesotho the money earned from our textile exports to the United States; whereat the frustrated servant sighed “Ntate, what can we do when the owners of the economy prefer to do so?”

This was against the SACU duty credit certificate rules which assisted the exporters with funds to earn the much needed foreign exchange for their countries and the South African Reserve Bank administering the scheme was red with rage, and the professional were shaking with trepidation, fearing for the fate of the country – but it meant nothing to the central banker and the minister; and their boss the prime minister who shouldn’t have been in the post if he didn’t know.

This was the selfsame minister whom we wrote about here teaming up with a principal secretary to vainly try to help a shopping mall to not pay a M2 million stamp duty on its mortgage, contending it was obstruction to investment and South African had already abolished it, whereas the law still existed.

This was not respect for the childbearing woman who suffers a miscarriage because of lack of health facilities, explained by shortage of capital budget, resulting from inadequate tax collection, done so in her name, against her and in favor of over-fattened bigots. Despite these media revelations and others, no censure of these public representatives and servants is known to have come to pass.

As the foregoing demonstrates, this is the ultimate explanation of the privatisation of the public service space, and its annexation to the personal whims and caprices of the individuals, where its ethos fluctuates with the predilection of their emotions at any point in time. In this milieu, privatizing or “pocketing” the leading state jobs, contracts of all sorts and insertion of faces into the edifice of organs of the state is embraced as normal, and they’re awarded or withheld to reward worshippers of the rot peddlers and defenders of this “industry”, as well as punishing the compliant, critical or otherwise morally upright among those in the queue for them.

These can have dire consequences, either from extremes of depression or anger, leading to breakdown of bodily functions or death. Recently when a youth leader of the All Basotho Convention was killed by tuberculosis according to his sister, who said in a eulogy that she was rebuking unspecified speculation about his demise, the party representative from Gauteng branch and the youth league representative still went on to insist, in their rendition of condolences, to say that their party’s deployees in government had a hand in his death due to heightened anxiety which probably exacerbated his condition, claiming that he confided in them his frustration about the party cadres including himself being excluded or shed off from the top deck of the civil service in a campaign or punishment or vengeance.

The next stop is those who shut you out and treat you like a lunatic when you enquire about government financial obligations to you, whether it is unpaid salary, gratuity, pension or invoice for work rendered.

You often have to divulge the most compromising information about your status to strangers in order to be reunited with the honourably earned fruit of your sweat which has been alienated from you by pea-brained petty arrogance: that your car or house risks being taken away, that your kids are being expelled from school, your wife might miscarry, you might be evicted for rent…you even can’t afford basic grocery.

But the people who should be feared when they frown on these things never, literally never, suffer this humiliation. They keep hopping from one ministry or fiefdom (thiefdom!) to another, stretching the landscape of waste in their trail, and annexing each new workplace as another colony in their empire of rot.

A national story has been woven, internalized and entrenched that your livelihood opportunities are very much constricted in this kingdom when you’re outside this grid, whether in the public or private sector the web will somehow catch up with you.

But let us end on a positive note. All is not lost yet. The fortune in our hand is that we know where we lost the path, and how to get back on it. We saw these things at their birth, and knew their meaning and their bitter fruit.

We only decided not to act on them because we thought that might surrender space to the deadly forces were facing, that the alternative was too frightening to imagine. When Ntsu Mokhehle and Tom Thabane started their personality cult on which their worshippers rode to corrupt their parties and our state, everyone of us was wide open-eyed, and knew the train had derailed, and what had to be done – hence the subsequent, though belated, fruitful efforts to stem and uproot such misdeeds.

The many institutional reforms introducing a regiment of oversight bodies like the Ombudsman, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offence and the Financial Intelligence Unit, the live national television broadcast of the PAC proceedings and instant penalties, even incarceration, for those misleading its proceedings, repeated on virtually all private radio stations.

All these illustrate the giant strides we have made as a people, not gifts of the state, upon which we can only improve in the ongoing seven-sector “comprehensive” national reforms based on the germane citizen voices. It is a work in progress, but thankfully it has started, and for that the future of Lesotho can only be safe, even if only after long and painful sacrifices.

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