Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Kimetso Mathaba has a clear vision of where he wants Lesotho to be by the time he calls it a day
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Kimetso Mathaba is clearly a man on a mission. The National Independent Party (NIP) leader assumed office in March this year after his party formed an alliance with the Democratic Congress (DC), Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC), Basotho Congress Party (BCP), Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP) and Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) in the wake of the 28 February 2015 snap elections which had produced a hung parliament.
Mr Mathaba speaks passionately about his job and programmes that fall under his office which include the Food Management Unit (FMU), Disaster Management Authority (DMA), Child Nutrition, Poverty Reduction, as well as the possible re-establishment of the National AIDS Commission (NAC). NAC had been responsible for developing and coordinating strategies and programmes for controlling and combating HIV and AIDS, but was closed in 2011 amid claims it was failing to fulfil its mandate. However, Mr Mathaba tells Lesotho Times (LT) Political Editor Bongiwe Zihlangu that among his priorities is the resuscitation of this very critical body.
LT: You have been in office since March and took over from Mr Pitso Maisa who was Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office under the previous government led by Dr Thomas Thabane. What did you find when you first came in and how has work been in your first three months in office?
Mathaba: Coming into an office like this without an official and proper handover-takeover from one’s predecessor makes for a complicated start. There was no minister when I came in, so I was in the dark about any of the programmes the office was working on, the progress made and so forth.
So because of this, I had absolutely no idea where to start, and had to learn all the ropes from the ministerial staff. Another problem I faced was the authenticity of the information given me by these officials, particularly the Principal Secretary (PS). This is because PSs are all political appointees, and therefore, have their parties’ interests at heart. This makes them reluctant to cooperate with the new government.
But when you are a new minister, you are left with no choice but to believe that the ministerial staff is providing you with all the information you need to get into the swing of things. I was guided on a lot of issues, including what my mandate in that office was.
LT: The normal practice is that there should be an official handover from predecessor to successor so why was this not the case?
Mathaba: It doesn’t work like that in politics, at least not in our politics. It’s normal to find an empty office where you’re left to your own devices, and have to claw your way to the top with the help of mainly the PS. Vacating an office due to the loss of power, borne of the choice made by the electorate, is not an easy thing to do and leaves one feeling powerless. Maybe this is due to our level of maturity in our politics. We have not yet reached that level of understanding, that after every election, there will be winners and losers.
There should be a place where those leaving office meet with the incoming authorities for a proper handover to take place. The only handover you see is between the outgoing and incoming prime minister (PM), for which a special ceremony is held as a symbol of the change of power.
LT: What challenges would you say you have come across since taking over?
Mathaba: Learning the ropes under the circumstances I’ve already mentioned is a challenge in itself. You first have to learn the mandate of your office, and know the laws and policies that regulate the functions of your office.
The next step is meeting with various departments falling under your ministry to familiarise yourself with their assigned functions. We have departments such as Administration, Smart Partnership, Poverty Reduction, Child Nutrition (FNCO), DMA and FMU, as well as the Office of the First Lady.
LT: Would you say there’s a difference in the style of administration between your government and the previous one?
Mathaba: There’s a stark difference, yes. There have been several changes made here. For instance, the ministries of police and defence were manned by the PM in the past, while the Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) presided over the Ministry of Local Government.
However, the scenario now is that the DPM is the PM’s right-hand man, overseeing the performance of all ministries with the mandate to report to the PM. All ministries now report to this office on the progress made and are accountable to the PM.
While the Government Secretary is also secretary of cabinet taking minutes during meetings, his duties also entail assessing the performance of PSs as they report directly to him.
LT: Let us now unpack some of your office’s programmes, starting with Poverty Reduction.
Mathaba: Poverty Reduction seeks to enrol people in various programmes to equip them with skills, eventually enabling them to become self-sufficient, self-reliant and create jobs.
There are experts engaged by the ministry under Poverty Reduction to train people in different programmes. These programmes include but are not limited to, the manufacturing of petroleum jelly using the native aloe plant and other skin lotions, using a host of native plants that our country has been blessed with in abundance.
Under a similar programme, people are also taught skills such as manufacturing bricks from sandstone, while others learn how to produce and bottle sorghum porridge thereby generating income and creating jobs.
But for these programmes to succeed, people need to get into them with their hearts and embrace the skills they acquire in order for their lives to improve. I’m saying this because people have the tendency to enrol for certain programmes to acquire skills, but fail to use those same skills to advance the quality of their lives.
LT: Please could you tell us more about the DMA and its mandate?
Mathaba: The DMA is a disaster-management body aimed at preventing and managing disasters. It trains the public on how to prevent disasters, as well as managing them when they happen. For instance, people are offered swimming lessons so that they are capable of saving themselves from drowning, as well as rescuing others from a similar fate.
Snow is one of Lesotho’s common natural hazards. Because Basotho keep their livestock in the mountains, shepherds are equipped with skills to deal with snowfall, such as identifying when it is ideal to move their animals to the lowlands. The DMA also serves the purpose of rescuing those trapped by snow during winter and so forth.
The Authority plays a vital role in instances where natural disasters have struck, such as rebuilding houses destroyed by strong winds and heavy rains, particularly those belonging to destitute people with no capacity to rebuild them on their own. The DMA temporarily provides them with tents to reside in while they wait for their houses to be rebuilt.
We’re currently in the process of rebuilding houses destroyed by strong winds in a village called Mahlokong, situated in Kolo region in Mafeteng district. Building materials required for the project have already been delivered to the village, where all but two homes were spared the tragedy. Residents there are desperate to have their homes back so that they can start rebuilding their lives.
LT: What are the most common natural hazards/disasters in Lesotho?
Mathaba: Tornadoes, cyclones, snow, drought. These are some of the most common natural hazards. Even as we speak, we’re faced with the challenge of dealing with the repercussions of the recent drought. We’re already engaging the World Food Programme (WFP) with a view to be met halfway with food supplies. It’s a long process because a census needs to be undertaken to establish the situation on the ground, and the statistics of the acres of land ploughed, the amount of food we were able to produce, what we need as surplus to survive and the number of people most likely to be affected by the drought.
LT: The DMA is a body in this office, established for the purposes you have already mentioned. But do you have a comprehensive Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Policy or Act of Parliament in place to help Lesotho better deal with disasters and establish more accountable disaster-risk reduction platforms?
Mathaba: We are compelled to have laws and policies in place to better deal with disasters. But at the moment, we do not have such laws in place although we’re in the process of doing just that. We do not have a draft law as yet, because we’re still assessing the situation to better understand what our focal areas will be once we draft the disaster-specific laws. Other African countries are way ahead of us, but because DRR is a serious topic common to all countries of the world, we’re working hard to catch up.
LT: Please take us through a Proper Nutrition Programme and what it entails.
Mathaba: It is essentially aimed at ensuring that children receive proper nutrition from birth so that they grow up healthy. We are currently faced with the challenge of stunting, where children do not reach their full growth potential. All the ministries concerned with the production of food and proper nutrition, such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and that of Health, should be tasked with the responsibility of producing food, distributing it accordingly as a way of ensuring that children eat healthy so that they grow up as expected.
These days, children are born small while others don’t get proper nutrition after birth, thus leading to stunted growth and poor health.
Recently, we were in Addis Ababa with His Majesty King Letsie III, to launch the strategic plan on proper nutrition. Listening to other countries making their presentations was an eye-opener, as you could see people who were accomplished in this field and understood what it entailed.
We need to come up with a strategy to collect funds from each ministry’s budget, to be channelled towards enhancing nutrition programmes in the country. This will help avert a myriad of health problems because healthy children grow up to become healthy adults.
LT: Lesotho has slumped from third to second position on the HIV-prevalence scale worldwide. Is it safe to say our current position should be blamed on the collapse of the country’s HIV and AIDS coordinating body, the National Aids Commission (NAC)?
Mathaba: It is true we are where we are today because of NAC’s absence. But I can assure you that we’re working relentlessly to ensure that the body is reinstated as soon as possible. In fact, I have no doubt that by October or before the end of this year, NAC would have been in place.
We have identified the serious consequences that NAC’s absence has brought and intend to correct that mistake as quickly as possible.
For one, the Ministry of Health was left to deal with HIV and AIDS-related issues, but does not have the capacity on its own to coordinate. The ministry’s capacity is limited to offering care and treatment to patients, as well as preventing infections.
The NAC’s absence also created many challenges for our development partners, whose efforts to assist on HIV and AIDS issues were hampered by lack of a coordinating body. Even the law establishing NAC specified that it was going to be a coordinating body; its death therefore meant a collapse in the coordination of HIV and AIDS related issues in Lesotho.
I and DPM Metsing are working hard towards reviving the NAC. Very soon we will be tabling our proposal before cabinet so that we’re given the approval to revitalise the body. Even our development partners such as UNAIDS and others, are heavily backing government to ensure we reach our intended goal with the NAC.
LT: Now onto NIP. There is this perception that you and other smaller parties do not have a voice in government; that the bigger parties like the DC and LCD are the decision-makers while you sit back and watch. Now tell me, do you have a voice in the coalition government? If you do, is the voice audible enough?
Mathaba: Yes, we do have a big voice. No decision can be made in government without incorporating the NIP’s views. Those are just perceptions, and they couldn’t be further from the truth. We work so well together and respect each other’s opinions. Even the smallest of voices are heard. Even when I’m out of the country or in the field and an urgent decision needs to be made, I receive a call informing me of the situation and asking what my views are.
It’s all but a misguided notion. So far we’re on the right track although I’m not sure what might happen as time goes on. But if we were to maintain this course, then we will continue to outdo ourselves.
LT: Do you believe your coalition government has the potential to make it to the prescribed five years?
Mathaba: We will get to the end of this first five years and the next five years. You raise a very important issue. Usually, coalition governments collapse as a result of internal strife. If we keep a united front and fight off our detractors instead of fighting amongst ourselves, then we will go very far.
But once the war rises from within the coalition, then that’s where the problem is. Like I’ve said already, I have faith in the seven of us and that we will continue to work well together.
I trust the men that I work with immensely due to their status and experience in politics. The DPM is the junior-most political party leader in the coalition, after me of course. They are all mature.
LT: Do you think being part of the current coalition government improves the NIP’s chances of growing and delivering a much better performance in the next election?
Mathaba: I do hope so. The NIP first entered Parliament in 2002 with five seats, followed by an alliance with the then ruling LCD in 2007, resulting in twenty-one Proportional Representation (PR) seats. Then in 2012, we had internal fights which saw two camps from the same party contesting elections individually. We ended up with just two seats in Parliament, which was a major decline from 2007.
LT: Why do you think your numbers are going down so dramatically?
Mathaba: We had never-ending challenges which were the result of intra-party conflicts. We were forced to focus on putting out the fires instead of reaching out to our supporters and fighting to retain members. People also hate conflicts and would rather join other parties, than stay where it is evident the source of strife is mere power-struggle.
But on the 21PR seats we acquired in 2007, those were the result of LCD supporters voting with us because we were in an alliance. However, our association with the LCD helped in making us known countrywide. It is not an easy task marketing a small party, so in a way we gained something.
LT: What then led to NIP just acquiring one seat in the last election?
Mathaba: The election was a competition between nationalist and congress parties, thus putting a strain on the smaller parties. People needed to ensure their parties of origin won. Even looking at our books, the numbers in there defy that we only got one seat. I mean, the NIP has a membership in the region of 70 000.
LT: Does it make a difference that you are a political party founded on the nationalist ideology, but are working with parties that are founded predominantly on the congress ideology?
Mathaba: Not at all. I always define the NIP as a home to all who feel disgruntled in their own political parties, be they congress or nationalist. The NIP is a place for anyone looking for a new political home.