The Office of the Master of the High Court hardly makes the headlines despite its critical role in society, which includes protecting and administering the estates of children, mental health patients and insolvent companies. Lesotho Times (LT) Political Editor Bongiwe Zihlangu this week speaks with the Master of the High Court, Advocate Veronica Matiea, about the functions of her office, challenges she meets in the line of duty and this year’s African Women’s Month theme on HIV, Inheritance and Gender-Based Violence (GBV).
LT: Could you please tell us who Veronica Matiea is?
Matiea: Veronica Matiea is a 46-year-old Mosotho woman. I am the Master of the High Court and have held this position since February 2003. Before then, I was a Prosecutor and had worked in different districts.
I studied law; I first did a BA-Law Degree at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) for four years. I then started wok but later went back to do an LLB (Bachelor of Laws degree). I went back to work again. After that, I went back to study, pursuing a Masters Degree in Women’s Law, at the University of Zimbabwe.
LT: The Office of the Master of the High Court…what are its functions?
Matiea: Many people have different interpretations of this office depending on the services they have received. This office was established under the Administration of Estates Proclamation No 19 of 1935.
The law itself clearly states the type of estates that the Master of the High Court administers. These include the estates of deceased people, minors, mental health patients and people who are out of the country but at the same time, do not have lawful representatives.
We also administer what we call a Guardian’s Fund. This is the fund where we keep and manage the monies of mental health patients and children whose parents are deceased.
We also administer individuals’ insolvent estates, as well as those of companies facing liquidation or under judicial management. Companies under judicial management are those that have been rescued from liquidation but as an interim measure, have to be kept under watch as they recover. This is done where there are conflicts at management level, resulting in maladministration and the abuse of funds.
LT: Could you please explain further what children’s estates are?
Matiea: Most Basotho do not have a lot of property they leave behind when they die. But when we talk about children’s estates, we are referring to any property or assets left to children by their parents, which include livestock, money, furniture and even clothing. These days, we are encouraging families to break away from the culture of distributing deceased parents’ clothes, and leave that responsibility to the children.
The children are the ones who are supposed to distribute the clothes because they are their inheritance. Parents have clothes that their children like. If such clothes are distributed among relatives against the children’s will, it remains a wound in their hearts that will never heal because they would have been deprived of their right to decide how their inheritance should be managed.
As for their money, it is directly managed from this office. We go around collecting all the money that is due to the children, then deposit it in the government fund at the Ministry of Finance, from which we manage it.
We then keep files, identify the beneficiaries and guardians we would work with in managing those funds.
LT: How easy or difficult is it to manage such monies?
Matiea: It is the most difficult and painful job. This is because we work with people who are clueless about the requirements of the law, or are unwilling to cooperate once they have been informed about our expectations from them.
Some of them blatantly refuse to cooperate, such as grandparents, who would claim the money for their own benefit on the basis that the deceased parents were their children.
It’s very sad that some people fight the law to benefit from their deceased children’s estates at the detriment of orphans, totally turning a blind eye to the fact that their grandchildren should, by right, inherit their parents’ properties and funds.
This is the kind of work that makes us fallout with many people. It is very sad that people have become so greedy, grabbing monies and properties left to orphans—the same children we are supposed to protect.
It has become so bad that when wealthy parents die, relatives fight for the guardianship of orphans left behind so that they can get their hands on their inheritance. Some even separate the children so that the money is distributed among them. This leaves children bitter. We are raising children who will, one day, become very angry and bitter adults due to their upbringing.
LT: How does your office determine the suitable guardian?
Matiea: There are various ways of determining guardianship. The mother is the children’s guardian when the father dies. The same applies to the father, when the mother dies. They are the children’s natural guardians by law.
Guardians are appointed by either the High Court, Magistrate’s Court, Master of the High Court or a child’s family. Where both parents are deceased, the family appoints a guardian.
Where there is conflict, we engage social workers to assess the situation as well as the child, to establish their needs.
LT: How does your office work in relation to the Children’s Protection and Welfare Act 2011?
Matiea: Firstly, when parents die, relatives, members of the community or any other person with information pertaining to the death can report the bereavement to us. This has to be done as soon as possible because usually, when it comes to issues involving children, we only receive such reports after the inheritance has been squandered.
For instance, in cases where there is need to sell an orphan’s property, nobody has the right to go through with such a sale without consent from this office. If they go ahead anyway, we have the right to sue them. Half the time they cannot even account for the monies as they would not have kept any records of the money generated from the sale.
It is, therefore, not easy for us to get people to repay what they would have squandered, hence the law is clear that deaths should be reported to this office as soon as possible so that children’s inheritance can be managed properly.
Worse still, there are cases where guardians still undermine the office by pretending to be working with us when behind the scenes, they are selling and abusing children’s properties for their own benefit.
According to the law, people found to have abused children’s monies and inheritance, are liable to a fine of no more than M5000 or a prison sentence.
Remember, as this office administers children’s estates, the main principle guiding us is that the interests of the child come before anything else. Ours is to ensure the welfare of children, not relatives. But half the time, you find relatives who put their interests before those of orphans in their care.
This translates to the office having the powers to repossess children’s assets and can also sue on their behalf.
LT: How do you deal with cases where one parent deserts the home, leaving the other to raise their children, only to resurface when the other has died to claim the inheritance?
Matiea: Where a parent deserts or does not contribute to the upbringing of their children, the Master of the High Court will have to establish their share in the upbringing of the couple’s children so that we can decide how much they are entitled to.
The Master of the High Court also has the powers to make financial decisions on children’s behalf, such as investing a certain portion of their monies or assets. But we are also very careful how we go about it because we do not need to invest in fly-by-night schemes.
LT: So how does your office relate with District Administrators (DAs)?
Matiea: We work with them as well as chiefs in that in Sesotho, beneficiaries are identified by their families, and presented before chiefs in the form of letters signed by the families and stamped. The beneficiaries will then be referred to principal chiefs who in turn, refer them to the DAs. It is the DA who then introduces the beneficiaries to the Master of the High Court.
LT: You have also said your office administers the estates of mental health patients. How do you go about it?
Matiea: The law states that mental health patients—and I don’t mean the disabled but people who were sane at one point but due to life’s challenges, experience psychological problems—are the ones whose estates we manage to protect their properties from being abused.
People with mental problems become legal minors as they do not have the capacity to manage their own affairs. They cannot sign any contracts or enter into agreements with anyone, hence the need for this office to manage their affairs.
We usually work with family members we allow to manage the patient’s affairs without abusing their access to the estate in question. We ensure they benefit from their monies and assets despite their compromised state of mind.
LT: How does your office determine that a person qualifies as a mental health patient?
Matiea: We don’t determine who qualifies as a mental health patient; such cases are reported to this office. Banks, for instance, alert us of instances whereby family members try to withdraw monies of such patients. This is because we have sensitised them of the importance of doing so in the interest of patients.
Family members also report such cases to us and we then engage doctors to ascertain facts before we allow relatives access to patients’ monies. They usually become impatient with us, especially when we demand renewed proof that the individual in question still has mental problems because there are times when mental health patients experience lucid periods, whereby their sanity returns.
LT: You said your office primarily protects children’s right to inheritance. What category of children do you deal with? There are children who are born within a marriage, while others are your so-called illegitimate children. How far is your reach?
Matiea: The right to inheritance stems from a valid, legal marriage. Inheritance and marriage go hand-in-glove. Our laws state that children who are entitled to their father’s inheritance, are those born within wedlock, not illegitimate children.
But here is something surprising about this very law. Children born out of wedlock are entitled to inherit from their mothers but not their fathers. When this law was being drafted, some of us felt that both categories of children should be entitled to inheritance from their mothers’ and fathers’ estates. But the suggestion was shot down by male MPs to a point that it was deleted from the draft law.
However, illegitimate children can claim maintenance from their fathers’ estates. But cases differ. In instances where a child’s father never maintained them but the mother resurfaces to demand maintenance when the father dies, it becomes difficult because the father never acknowledged the child in the first place.
But in the event that there’s proof the deceased parent acknowledged their child, then it becomes easy for the said child to demand maintenance from his father’s estate until such a time that the he or she comes of age.
There’s something though about this law, that doesn’t sit well with me—that an illegitimate child can claim inheritance from the estate of his or her mother even if she gets married, yet the same does not apply with men.
Why can’t the same happen with men? That these men have children with women out of wedlock, who did not ask to be brought to the world but cannot claim inheritance? My opinion is that children are the same; why can’t they be entitled to similar benefits?
LT: What challenges do you normally across?
Matiea: One of the major challenges is people’s failure to report deaths within the prescribed 14 days. But people do not observe this, either because they don’t know or they just don’t want to. But the minute they encounter problems, they approach this office expecting us to offer solutions to their problems.
People do not report estates, especially where widows are concerned. There are cases whereby widows are victimised and relatives grab their properties and their children are suddenly marginalised just because their husbands would have died. It gets so bad that these poor women are even accused of killing their husbands or being promiscuous, even though they would have helped their husbands build their empire.
Apart from reporting estates on time, people also need to draw up their wills while there’s still time so that their wealth can be distributed among their loved ones, and according to their wishes.
The situation analysis of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) in Lesotho of 2011, established that the country had over 363 526 orphaned children, segregating them per category such as those left with single parents, as well as double orphans and their sex and so forth.
To protect these children is not easy because the ratio of people we have to serve is in direct contradiction with our office’s capacity in terms of human resources.
For instance, we need to include social workers in our strategic plan because we have to enlist the help of the Ministry of Social Development when we need social workers. It becomes quite difficult because they already have their assigned duties within their ministry and can only help us when their tight schedules allow it.
LT: You said you studied Women’s Law with the University of Zimbabwe. This is August, dubbed African Women’s Month to highlight and celebrate the crucial role women play in society. As a woman holding a leadership position, what can you say on this year’s theme that tackles Inheritance, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and HIV/AIDS?
Matiea: When you talk about Inheritance, Gender-Based Violence, HIV/AIDS and women’s rights, you’re pulling hard at my heartstrings because women are always victims.
It defies logic why the brunt of all these things falls on women. You ask yourself, why women? Why do these things have to happen? Where did we get it wrong? There’s domestic violence in our homes, affecting children and women. But because of women’s silence, some of these issues do not come out in the open, with the victims believing it better to keep quiet than wash their dirty linen in public.
But the saddest part is that women suffering at the hands of their abusive partners lose themselves in the process. Instead of fighting to get out, they spend half their lives trying to make sense of their situation and asking themselves why their partners or husbands have suddenly changed. For people who have never been in abusive situations, it’s difficult to find logic in women staying on. As you wonder why your husband has changed, he continues to kill you gradually.
Usually, perpetrators of GBV were abused themselves growing up and so do not know any better. Some are people who grew up under harsh circumstances and swore that their children would never go through the same. However, in the process they become so over-protective of their loved ones that they end up destroying the same relations they swore to protect.
This brings me back to adults who grab children’s properties and monies without realising that they are creating monsters with heavy hearts; monsters who will retaliate and commit crimes as a result, one day.
LT: As he addressed women’s leagues of his coalition government a fortnight ago, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili appealed to women’s groups and women in leadership positions, to lobby for funds to engage experts and establish why GBV is so prevalent in Lesotho and how we can find remedies. What do you say to the PM’s call?
Matiea: He is right. Yes, we need GBV experts to come and assess our mindsets and behavioural patterns. I agree with the PM that we need a solution to this crisis because if we don’t, then I don’t know the kind of Lesotho we are headed for. I’m saying this because in general we’re an angry nation. Could this be the end of the world (sighs)?