MASERU – In what can be seen as an attempt to salvage her damaged reputation, First Lady ’Maesaiah Liabiloe Thabane has launched a charm offensive which in the past week has seen her mingle with the poor and even change an incontinence pad for a cancer patient.
’Maesaiah’s campaign of flattery comes on the back of damning media reports painting her as a mix between former Zimbabwean First Grace Mugabe and Lucy Kibaki the late wife of Kenya’s former President Mwai Kibaki.
Both Mugabe and Kibaki gained international notoriety for garrulously attacking opponents and in some instances, doing so physically.
Kibaki whose husband ruled Kenya between 2002 and 2013 famously slapped a cameraman in 2005 when she stormed the offices of a private media group in anger at the way a story about her had been reported.
Mugabe’s list of transgressions ranges from publicly excoriating her husband’s then deputy, Joyce Mujuru, to assaulting journalists in Hong Kong, a South African model for dating one of her fun-loving sons and a domestic worker at her opulent Blue Roof mansion in Harare.
While some local analysts and opposition politicians have, in the main, described Maesaiah in unflattering terms, her legion of supporters argue she is grossly misunderstood.
Her husband, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, has intermittently jumped to his wife’s rescue to ward off sustained blows on Maesaiah, even from within his own All Basotho Convention (ABC).
In a fire and brimstone speech in Mohale’s Hoek in 2017, Thabane pushed back at his wife’s critics, telling them to “put brakes to the practice” of disparaging Maesaiah.
“These people should stop their interference in my family issues,” Thabane said.
Thabane’s ire was provoked by former ABC chairperson Motlohi Maliehe’s blistering attack on Maesaiah for reportedly interfering in party and government affairs.
Maliehe accused the First Lady of fomenting chaos in the party and in the government through “constant meddling” in the work of ministers and officials, thus threatening government.
The First Lady, he said, was torpedoing government by seeking to control ministers and how they performed their duties.
He accused Maesaiah of violating the constitution and “abetting corruption” by instigating the removal of ministers who refused to comply with her demands.
Former Minister of Health Nyapane Kaya had been removed from the post after he refused to unlawfully award the ministry’s laundry and catering tenders to Maesaiah’s preferred candidates, Maliehe charged.
In her latest gaffe, Maesaiah on Saturday reportedly threatened to beat up Sports Minister Dr Mahali Phamotse at Setsoto Stadium for engaging Thabane without going through her.
Phamotse had apparently asked the Prime Minister to descend onto the pitch to greet Matlama and Linare players before they kicked off their Econet Premier League match.
“This is my husband! You cannot talk to my husband without my permission,” Maesaiah shouted at Phamotse who reportedly remained calm throughout the fracas.
And this week, Maesaiah, went on a tour of radio stations explaining her actions and telling Public Eye in a rare interview at the State House, she sometimes lashed out because of frustration at perverse inefficiency in government and when she was backed into a corner.
She said official bungling and government inertia sometimes forced her to take matters into her own hands to ensure Basotho got services they needed.
It was in pursuit of these virtues, she said, that she sometimes collided with officials hampering progress, who then accused her of interfering in government business.
Oftentimes, weary citizens approached her for help after ministries had failed to address their needs.
She said this after ’Mamolibeli Tlhabi from Thaba Tseka aged 71 with severe cervix cancer knocked on her door asking for help to go to Bloemfontein for treatment.
This was after she had failed to persuade health authorities to ferry her to Bloemfontein for a life-saving operation.
Tlhabi lives with her minor grandson who cannot help change the incontinence pads (diapers) she has to wear.
The virulent disease was diagnosed in January at Queen Elizabeth II hospital, after which she was told to go to Bloemfontein for specialised treatment.
She was unable to do so due to lack of funds.
Lesotho has struck a deal with Bloemfontein and India’s Apollo hospitals to treat Lesotho kidney and cancer patients and government meets all the costs.
Tlhabi is not on government welfare after clerks at the ministry of home affairs bungled her age, dropping her below the threshold for old-age pensions.
Aside from her worsening illness, Tlhabi depends on neighbours for food and help with household chores.
A moved Maesaiah, giving the public a glimpse into her often masked soft side, gave the hapless Tlhabi incontinence pads, maize and wheat meal.
She promised to get the ministry of social development to provide her with more pads and food.
The First Lady added Tlhabi should have been taken to Bloemfontein as soon as her debilitating illness was diagnosed as government provides this service.
That she was left to her own devices in the face of the menacing illness was an indictment on the ministry of health and a reversal of government’s health for all thrust.
Tlhabi’s plight, she added, had exposed weaknesses in the ministry which seemed to be focusing more on helping Maseru residents only whereas cancer was widespread across the country.
“The ministry of health should go out to remote places around the country and teach people about cancer and screen them so that they can be attended to in the first stages of the disease.
“They should not only focus on urban areas but go out and even ensure that cancer screening is done in rural hospitals,” she said.
She said the fact that cancer screening is done in urban areas only leaves out the most vulnerable people who have no means to travel to cities and, as a result, die painful deaths.
She urged government to collect statistics of cancer patients so that those in urgent need of palliative care are expeditiously identified and helped accordingly.
This, the ministry of health could do in tandem with the ministry of social development which could provide figures of those in dire need of food assistance.
“Cancer does not occur in Maseru only, it happens all around the country and is killing people, but the government is not treating it as an emergency,” she noted.
She summoned health deputy minister ’Manthabiseng Phohleli to explain why her ministry had not ferried Tlhabi to Bloemfontein for treatment upon diagnosis.
Phohleli promised to arrange another screening session for Tlhabi and transfer to Bloemfontein, adding it might be she was too frail to be taken to India.
India-bound patients get the nod from Indian doctors in Maseru after a rigorous testing process to ensure that their bodies can withstand the long trip.
Phohleli said her ministry was rolling out cancer screening facilities at all hospitals and health centres across the country and had already placed village health workers in district councils from where they taught rural dwellers about cancer.
She noted that 45 patients have been lined up to travel to India for cancer and kidney treatment.
She said ever since the agreement between India and Lesotho was sealed, only one patient had died while receiving treatment in the Asian country, which offers services at affordable prices compared to the astronomical fees charged in Bloemfontein.
Speaking at the same occasion, Prime Minister Thabane noted that the incident was a wake-up call to the ministry of health, adding it was time poor villagers’ health issues were prioritised.
This could only be done if more village health workers – who are the coalface of identifying and nursing sick people in the villages – were deployed to remote districts.