LAST Friday evening I (and later discovered many other Basotho) watched an unbelievable bulletin on SABC news. The first episode of the drama was performed by a certain Dumisani Dlangamandla, Swaziland’s communications minister. This was at a forum held in Maseru for SADC communication ministers. Two main features of his speech stood out. Firstly the manner of his presentation and secondly, the statements he uttered.
Mr Dlangamandla and his counterparts were particularly berating citizens of their countries for using social media to sow confusion and instability and exaggerating the problems in the region, and recent developments in Lesotho came into sharp focus. The man from Swaziland spoke animatedly about how they had been made to believe there was chaos in Lesotho, yet he had since discovered there is peace in the country and that none of the negativity portrayed seemed to exist. He spoke as passionately as a man trying to save his cousin from execution by firing squad. You would bet he had the biggest stake in Lesotho issues and knew the country like a pro despite spending just a few days in a plush hotel and hardly ever meeting the citizens whose necks are breaking under the yoke of blatant impunity and sickening dictatorial tendencies. In his misguided opinion, the silent emotional and psychological trauma this nation has experienced at the hands of a national army was of zero significance. As far as he was concerned, it is acceptable for tax payers to finance (mostly unnecessary) operations of an institution that cannot even be regarded as a national asset but a long-time tormentor of its own people. We are talking here of an LDF that has never brought victory home against even small national armies like Swaziland and Cape Verde.
The Swazi minister’s tirade was not surprising particularly in view of the country he hails from. His is a country that certainly cannot be referred to as a model of democracy. Their King Mswati III has sweeping powers and bears the notorious distinction of being known as Africa’s last absolute monarch and their so-called elections are just a ruse. So, a minister from Swaziland would not be the best preacher of what democracy and civil liberties are all about. I am not sure if anyone told minister Dlangamandla that Basotho first learned of a hit list that included the names of businessman Thabiso Tšosane and Lt. General Maaparankoe Mahao from social media and that the two eventually got eliminated. Why should Basotho therefore not trust social media? Our national radio and television stations never provided this information and would not even dare considering that those with evil and murderous intentions would want to keep it secret. And, by the way, both our radio and television stations have never been known as news-breakers. Their mandate is understood even by my five-year old son.
And if the Swazi minister somehow learned about the hit list I wonder if he advised the Lesotho government to look deeper into the validity of the threats and take appropriate measures to protect those who had been threatened with death. But all of a sudden he takes to the podium and froths with passion about the ‘peace’ that prevails in Lesotho. If he were to lose his wife, brother, sister or close relative to a brutal state, he would know exactly what it means to live under the yoke of the type of dictatorship he was trying to shield. And more importantly, if he saw no action taken by the state against those who murdered his close relatives – the same way it happened with Mohau Qobete, Mokheseng Ramahloko and Maaparankoe Mahao – then he would learn with a bleeding heart how helpless it feels when the state itself flagrantly refuses to set the wheels of justice in motion. For such cruel states, protection of murderers takes precedence over protection of people’s liberties including speech and free association. Did Swaziland and other African states utter a word of open criticism against Lesotho when the Lesotho Defence Force tortured and disfigured soldiers and defied court orders to release those illegally detained? No, they kept quiet because they have normalized undemocratic and despotic behavour by their club of pals.
The second episode of last Friday’s SABC news drama was performed by none other than Lesotho’s Communications Minister Khotso Letsatsi. He alluded to the fact that government is working on a policy to control the seemingly limitless use of social media. When pressed further to give highlights of this policy, he cautioned it was unwise to do so as the enemy or opponent would be privy to the details of what was being concocted. I could not believe this! Perhaps the minister needs to explain exactly who he refers to as the enemy or opponent. Was he speaking as a government minister or as a member of a political party? In my opinion (and that of many other stunned Basotho) he was speaking as the latter. A government minister should never refer to any citizen as an enemy or opponent. They are accountable even to the pigs and hyenas that live in this country.
Titles like minister and deputy minister somehow tend to blot the real meaning attached to them. These people are public servants and should always display readiness to serve and set the same example as that of new Tanzanian President John Magufuli who has humanized and prioritized the needs of his people with a fresh brand of selfless and servant leadership. He has made huge cuts in travel and meaningless celebrations for example and instead prioritized the supply of more hospital beds and other social services. He is currently the new darling of Facebook commentators; the same media that some governments (like ours) fight like it’s a guerilla terrorist organisation. In a context like ours where the “per diem industry” (as one famous NUL professor once called it) reigns supreme and is a thriving goldfield, this Tanzanian president would be most welcome.
And why should a government be secretive about a policy that is meant to improve (assuming that’s the goal) the welfare of the citizens? Secretive states hardly bear the hallmarks of true democracies. They are usually brutal regimes whose main goal is to silence as many people as possible and crush dissent at all costs. Good-performing governments have no reason to panic every time citizens raise their voices on an issue of national significance. In fact, self-respecting governments pay attention and do their best to address national grievances without labeling citizens enemies or opponents. Enactment of policies and laws is usually a consultative process. Those that are kept out of public discourse are normally draconian.
Perhaps these SADC ministers could learn from other more civilized governments how social media can be used as an effective interactive tool to engage citizens in their respective countries. Some world leaders like Barack Obama use social media to respond directly to questions and comments from the general public. He hardly fears anything because he knows for sure he cannot please every US citizen and negative (even sometimes insulting) comments are likely to be posted. SADC leaders should rather focus on improving their appalling style of governance instead of wasting resources chasing after the public that ends up finding social media as their main outlet of pent-up frustrations resulting from this bad leadership. After all, who would honestly consider a government mouthpiece like Lesotho Television and Radio Lesotho as authentic sources of information?
Mahao Mahao is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the National University of Lesotho