By Letuka Chafotsa
MASERU — The unceremonious closure of the Office of the First Lady has left staff members and beneficiaries who include orphans and vulnerable children destitute, the Lesotho Times has learnt.
According to some of the staff members who spoke to this paper this week, the official reason given to justify the office’s closure was that its establishment was a duplication of efforts by government as it was performing the same functions as the Ministry of Social Development.
The official announcement of the closure was made last October by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s press secretary, Thabo Thakalekoala.
But the office’s 20 staff members were instructed to stop operating a month prior to its official closure in September, last year.
Now the employees are saying their future hang in the balance as they have not been assigned any other duties since September 1 last year.
One of the staff members who did not want to be named told us that while the workers understand that it is the prerogative of the government to establish and abolish any office “it has us worried about our future”.
“To date there have been no consultations regarding how our future is going to be affected by this move as is normal procedure when any government office is abolished,” one of the workers said.
The staff members strongly believe that when there is need to abolish any government offices, only vacant positions are eliminated while the rest of the staff members are redeployed, retired or retrenched, following relevant procedure throughout.
However, they said they are worried because none of the above-mentioned alternatives has been explored.
“We were just told that the Office of the First Lady was duplicating functions of the social development ministry hence it was declared redundant,” another staff member said.
The Office of the First Lady was meant to be held by the wife of an incumbent premier and was established to help needy and vulnerable children.
The driving force behind the establishment of the office was to meet government ministries tasked with distributing aid halfway by responding to urgent needs.
This is because government ministries tend to dela,y owing to bureaucratic procedures as one has to follow the set rigid rules and regulations.
Furthermore, the office was flexible in that donors would directly pump funds into it which could be utilised without following long government procedures.
The office’s mandate was also to develop critical partnerships with international donors and organisations, regional and local partners to mobilise resources, raise awareness and develop and support HIV/Aids prevention, treatment and care.
The office also advocated the reduction of stigma and discrimination against people living with and or affected by HIV/Aids while at the same time increasing their participation in fighting the pandemic.
One of the office’s functions was to come up with income generating projects for sustainability in support groups in villages nationwide.
Meanwhile, Nthabeleng Ramarikhoana, one of the office’s beneficiaries and a student at Abia High School from a group of fifty receiving aid from that office told this paper this week that they were abandoned “without any explanation”.
“We were not given any explanation that we would not be getting assistance from that office,” Ramarikhoana said.
“We were about 50 students and to our surprise we are now left with no details on why we no longer get help.”
So disturbed are the students, Ramarikhoana said, that they are planning to march to the office “to seek an explanation”.
“We are so furious that we even plan to march to that office to ask why we are no longer getting help,” Ramarikhoana said.
“We are also now wondering how this coming year will unfold for some us.”
According to Ramarikhoana, the aid they have been receiving from the Office of the First Lady was so adequate that they could not even feel they were orphans “due to the help we used to get there”.
“We do not know what to do now, but we believe you (Lesotho Times) can come to our rescue”, a seemingly distressed Ramarikhoana said.
Refiloe Lepheana, also a former beneficiary who attends school at Berea High school, said their lives were better when they were being assisted.
“But ever since the aid was stopped we no longer feel welcome in this world as we’re now having lots of problems,” Lepheana said sounding miserable.
“Now we’re unable to meet our basic needs.”
When contacted for comment Social Development Minister, ‘Matebatso Doti, said it was true that that the Office First Lady addressed similar challenges to that of her ministry “like helping orphans”.
“Offices doing similar work and performing functions similar to those of the social development ministry will be transferred to us”, Doti said.
Doti added that her ministry was preparing to absorb the offices in question but that since it does not take a day to complete all the necessary processes “there will be some delays as we go”.
“I must say we have been waiting for the transfers since 2012,” Doti said.
On the question of the fate of the rest of the staff members, Doti said she could not comment on their future.
“I cannot say anything on that. All I know is that offices with similar functions to mine will be absorbed by the social development ministry,” Doti said.
When contacted for comment this week, Thakalekoala said he had long announced the office’s closure but refrained from commenting on the fate of employees who will not be absorbed by the social development ministry.
“I have long announced the closure of that office to the public,” Thakalekoala said.
Thakalekoala referred this paper to cabinet’s Economic Affairs PS Sam Rapapa for further comment on the fate of the remaining employees.
However, Rapapa could not be reached for comment.
Phakiso Motaung, president of the Voice of the Voiceless Association (VOVA), a human rights advocacy group, said they could not comment on the issue of beneficiaries because “we have not yet seen documents confirming the closure of the office”.
However, Motaung’s view was that it would be unethical to enforce the closure of the office as that would “negatively affect beneficiaries”.