MASERU – The long arm of the law finally caught up with Makotoko Lerotholi in Pretoria last week.
He is at Pretoria Central Prison in South Africa, awaiting his extradition hearing.
Lerotholi will have his day in court but it might not be too early to call it the end of an eventful era for the man who dominated the news over the past two years because of his alleged connection with efforts to topple the government.
He is alleged to have been part of the group that attacked ministers’ houses in 2007.
And only last month the police said Lerotholi was the man behind the attack on the State House and an attempted assassination on the Prime Minister.
To the state Lerotholi might just be a suspect but to the public Lerotholi is simply “Mashai’ the tall gangling military police officer who terrorised motorists in 1999.
The old Sesotho saying: Mashai, thaba ea helehela batho! (A mountain falling on people) could not have been so befittingly bestowed like it was upon him.
He was indeed the mountain that fell on many motorists in 1999. Mashai, a tall slim but strong man, was feared throughout Maseru and its outskirts for the brutal manner in which he whipped motorists who broke traffic regulations.
He was a nemesis to taxi drivers, especially.
He became the de facto traffic controller in Maseru dispensing instant justice to anyone who dared drive recklessly.
He embarked on restoring safety on the roads by mainly targeting taxi drivers, their conductors and even passengers.
During his escapades Mashai would move around in a green military Land Rover.
His army uniform with a red badge on the left arm written MP (in black bold letters) was always crisply ironed and his red beret always precisely worn.
He always carried a whip — short enough for him to maintain the impact and long enough to reach its target.
Motorists stopped by Mashai would come to him already trembling with apologies and heartfelt requests for forgiveness written all over their faces.
It was not uncommon for grown men to drop a few tears as he unleashed his whip on them.
Mashai had a special interest in checking expired driver’s licences, the road-worthiness of the taxis and overloads.
In the event that a driver failed to produce proper documents for the taxi Mashai would roughly drag him out of the car and give him a good hiding before bundling him into the Military Police van.
This did not necessarily mean private drivers were immune to Mashai’s bite.
He also beat passengers that agreed to be overloaded into taxis.
Many will remember those taxi drivers who used to pack passengers like sardines.
Mashai would have none of that.
He would whip both the drivers, conductors and passengers.
Mashai would force offending drivers to lie on their faces before giving them a thorough hiding on the backside.
Some motorists used to cry uncontrollably whilst others would just sigh. No one would audibly insult or swear at him.
The mention of his name sent shivers down the spines of people. For some time Mashai was the law.
The cry of the siren of Mashai’s military van would trigger bedlam at taxi stations.
Drivers would scramble to maintain order.
The results were clear lines at the stations that had become notorious for their chaos.
One destination — one queue was Mashai’s policy.
The words “Mashai, ke eo! Mashai ke eo!” (Mashai is coming! Mashai is coming!), became the buzz word at the main bus station.
It was not part of his job description as a soldier but his initiative eventually earned him some praise from his seniors and the public alike. It was order forced on people.
But he made some enemies and many of them too. His reign of terror did not last for long but it did make a noticeable impact.
There was a decline in taxi drivers’ aggression on the roads. Long after he had stopped terrorising people, one could still feel his presence in the air. Taxi owners were angered.
A committee member and founder of the Lesotho Bus and Minibus Operators Association (LEBMOA), Sam Moru, said he was the one who spearheaded the removal of Mashai from the streets.
“The order in those years did not come because people respected the law and understood how this industry should be, it was out of fear of Mashai,” Moru said.
“People were harassed and embarrassed by beatings in front of their families which is a direct violation of their rights,” he said.
“I personally took the matter to the then commissioner of police, (Jonas) Malewa and the minister ’Mamoshebi (Kabi) who saw to it that Mashai’s operations came to a halt,” he said.
But Mashai was a victim of aggression in other quarters too.
He could feel pain too.
Arrested in the wake of the 2007 disturbances Mashai claimed to have been tortured while in custody.
“I was driven to different places including Sefikeng, where I was placed near a cliff while my hands and body were tied while I was being assaulted,” Mashai said.
He told the media that as a result of the beatings could not hear properly in one of his ears.
“My private parts were tied with a long string and were pulled from the back, as a result I am still urinating blood,” a distressed Mashai said.
His lawyer Advocate Haae Phofoolo visited him in prison on Monday.
He says Mashai is distressed and incoherent.
“He does not sound stable. He is disturbed and stressed. He told me that this mental condition was as a result of the torture that he suffered at the hands of the soldiers in 2007,” Phoofolo said.
Mashai’s neighbours and family members say he is a gentleman.
Good or bad Mashai remains a household name even a decade after the days of his whips and no-nonsense traffic control.
His case is likely to make him an even bigger character in the news when it starts