‘Go and vote to bring the change you want’

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BASOTHO will on Saturday go to the polls to elect local government representatives. Concurrently, parliamentary by-elections will be held in the constituencies of Teyateyaneng, Thupa-Kubu and Hololo.

Ahead of the elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) partnered with several civil society organisations in conducting voter education campaigns.

One such organisation is the Development for Peace Education (DPE).

In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) Reporter Pascalinah Kabi talks to DPE Coordinator Sofonea Shale on the importance of local government elections in a democratic dispensation.

LT: Since the beginning of September, your organisation has been engaging in voter education seminars ahead of the local government elections. Why is it important for civil society organisations to be involved?  

Shale: We have a partnership with the IEC because the resources availed by the IEC for electoral education are just a component of what we, as an organisation, share with the IEC. We must right away make a distinction between voter and electoral education. A voter is an individual citizen. So, when you talk of voter education, you are limiting the scope of the work we do.

Electoral education refers to the whole process of polls; pre-election, election and post-election phases.

It has elements of civic education and responsibilities of citizens in participating in their own governance. The IEC engages civil society organisations (CSOs) because it appreciates the fact that CSOs can actually become a tool for mobilisation and advocacy so that people can vote.

You will realise that IEC personnel will not engage in this kind of work that we do because it involves what they would call politics. On the other hand, the CSOs are not bound by anything. The only control measure in our engagement and conduct is that we should not be partisan. But in terms of the breadth of the subject, we are free to get into those nitty gritty discussions; tackling issues that are preventing people from voting while at the same time addressing questions that IEC personnel on the ground will not be able to respond to.

LT: What has been the response to the local government elections compared to the National Assembly polls since you began electoral education?

Shale: The issues of voter apathy or fatigue are the same. People are tired of voting. Since 1993, we have observed a decline in the number of voters for the National Assembly elections. The enthusiasm that people had with the local government has actually been diluted by the voter apathy; a result of the performance of elected representatives in our democracy.

So the questions are the same, but I think what differs is their intensity. I think with the local government elections, people have more pronounced, elaborate and practical questions. It is because, conceptually, the local government is supposed to be a government at the doorpost of citizens. But what people conceptualise has not translated into reality.

LT: What are people suggesting should be done to ensure that local government structures are given more power in terms of availability of resources as enshrined in the laws of Lesotho?

Shale: Firstly, in this campaign that we are running, people are not necessarily suggesting what needs to be done. They are basically saying, “look, DPE and the entire CSO fraternity, you are here while we have already decided not to vote but through your persuasion we will come and vote but the main concern is, why is that we only see you during election period? Why don’t we see you when we need you most during the post-election era when we get frustrated because of broken promises and the relationship between citizens and representatives is broken? We hardly see you.”

However, in our work as DPE, independent of the IEC, we are basically entrenching the culture of dialogue and policy engagement between policymakers and the citizens. That is where we have rich ideas from the people on how they think local government can be improved.

You will recall that it is our organisation, acting in concert with our sister CSO Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), which facilitated the public participation in the legislation of the Human Rights Commission law. We visited more than 65 constituencies in the country and solicited people’s ideas on the proposed bill. Unfortunately, members of parliament closed the door on us. They blocked us from giving them the voices of the people and it is on record that we took that matter up to the Constitutional Court and we are still pursuing that in the Court of Appeal.

People will also remember that when the powers of the IEC to call local government elections were taken away by parliament and placed in the hands of the prime minister, it was the DPE and TRC that stood up having consulted with the people. People actually said they did not want that law but when we presented those ideas to parliament, the portfolio committees were not interested.

This time around, we even invited them to the communities when we went to consult the people and they heard what people said yet they somersaulted when they got to parliament and did what they wanted to do.

We all know that when the last parliament was dissolved, there was a local government bill before parliament and we had already made preparations to subject it to public scrutiny because we know what needs to be done. We know because we have heard what the people think. In all these processes, we want to make sure that citizens’ voices are being heard.

LT: What needs to be done to ensure that the councillors perform their duties in practise not in theory?

Shale: The first point would be, let us all read the constitution and read it for comprehension. The Constitution says in Section 136 “there shall be local authorities in Lesotho to enable rural and urban communities to run their own affairs and develop themselves.”

If we read that with comprehension, it actually says we must have a local government in Lesotho that gives people on the ground power to run their affairs. That is what the constitution says and it does not say the local affairs should be run by the central government. Rural and urban communities should manage their affairs.

First and foremost, it is important to read and understand that section of the constitution because it basically spells out the kind of local government we must have. It is certainly not the one that we have.

Secondly, the National Decentralisation Policy that is in existence now should be operationalised with a law that is made in consultation with stakeholders in local government. In my view, the National Decentralisation Policy is very much in line with the constitution and in line with what Basotho on the ground make of local government.

That should not be a law done by consultants and officials who then smuggle it into parliament as has been the case in the previous regime. I think that is what needs to be done. But I think what has been a very perplexing task to the government has been to see ministries doing the actual decentralisation.

We need a new law called the Intergovernmental Relations Act, separate from the Local Government Act. The law should compel all the ministries to define their mandates and elaborate on how they will deliver on that mandate through different spheres of government.

For example, if the mandate of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport is to construct, maintain and connect Lesotho within itself and the neighbouring country with road networks, then it should be able to state the mandate or role of local and district authorities in as far as the mandate of the ministry is concerned.

It should also talk to the role of the community councils and if that is required of the law. That law should also state that resource allocations, financial and otherwise, shall be done in accordance with the implementation of that mandate.

That law would have actually responded to the question the government has been struggling with over the years. In fact, it is the answer to the desire of many people that the local government should be spelled out in the provision which I do not think will help. This legal framework will also enable ministries themselves to say “what is it that will be done by the central government; district administration and local government”.

LT: Talk more on the quota that is being used to advance the representation of women in local government structures.

Shale: The quota system is a mechanism through which women are enabled and encouraged to play an active role in the development of their own local communities. The reservation of a third of seats is quite better compared to when it started in 2005. At the time, the (Local Government) ministry did not listen when we said it was better to reserve seats and not to reserve constituencies or Electoral Divisions (EDs). We said that should also be a question of how to move and they had to go to Tanzania to change the model. In fact they could have saved a lot by just listening to CSOs here and not go to Tanzania. But I think even what we have now still has its own challenges, it needs to be improved because women that are occupying the special seats for women are not necessarily elected by the women or the people.

They are elected by political parties and we all know that all political parties are male-dominated and women are continually being used to advance the ill-perceived male-dominated development agenda. You see, women that are being put forward, at times, they are not women of substance; some are very reckless and lack integrity. Some are close to those who call the shots in political parties for other reasons.

But I think we need to change that, to revolutionalise it so that at the end of the day it is the people themselves who have power and authority to determine which women should be able to occupy those special seats. I can tell you that once we do that, more prolific women leaders will be able to make it to the councils than it is the case now.

I must also strongly state that the reservation of a third of seats for women is not adequate for women’s empowerment. It is basically for representation but representation for what? If it is representation for change, then it means we need a similar kind of affirmative thinking when it comes to the budget.

LT: As the voters have asked, where have you been all along?

Shale: We have been around all along. As DPE we are working in eight areas in six community councils within the six districts of Lesotho on a daily basis. We have been around all along and that particular question cannot justifiably be asked from our own areas. It is the question asked from the areas that are not our operational areas but areas that we are extending to them in this period given the limited resources.

We are consistently promoting dialogue between policymakers and the citizens; DPE has quite a number of programmes and the first example is the creation of a platform between citizens and community councillors. At the beginning, it was difficult to work with community councillors. However, the outgoing councillors are very happy with the work the DPE is doing with them; that is where we try to link up our community-based groups with the councils; empower community councils and help them to be able to articulate needs of their own areas.

We also have the National Community Parliament where ordinary citizens sit down and say “what is it that we want the National Budget to address” and when they do that, they will identify their needs within the confines of the community council plans by either bringing in new issues or working on priorities that are already there. It is a very participatory process and those issues are taken to be the priorities of the area; certain members of the community are elected, joined by the chiefs, councillors to form their own committees. These communities will then meet with different central government ministries to articulate their own issues face to face with ministers and Members of Parliament; Members of Parliamentary Portfolio Committees and other partners.

The two aforementioned examples indicate that we are constantly keeping in touch with the communities and we also have what we call People’s Tribunal where we take bills to communities, allow them to deliberate on them as proposed and determine whether the proposed bills should stand as they are or should be amended. DPE will then give the recommendations to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees. So, DPE has always been present. But we appreciate the strong message these communities are communicating with us; they are not yet convinced of what DPE and the rest of the CSOs are doing.

That actually says we should look at our programmes, sharpen them and do more. Government should be ready for a robust engagement because we are clearly hearing it from the people that they want us to accompany them throughout the journey. They want to help them make sure that their leaders are held accountable and come October when we have our new strategic plan rolled-out, you will see that we have very sharpened activities aimed at facilitating their accountability and democratisation process.

LT: What’s your message to the people ahead of the elections, given that you said people are tired of voting?

Shale: Go and vote. We need to revolutionalise, we cannot have a revolution without revolutionaries. This is why we need to vote for men and women of substance; people who will understand what the constitution says when it says there shall be local government to enable rural and urban communities to run their own affairs and development.

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