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A fresh chance to do things differently

Where ages of nations are concerned, a nation that is 200 years old is quite young — a nipper. In our case, we still have alive among us loved ones who are over a hundred years old. They have lived longer than half of the time that we have been a nation. One could even tamper our claim to being 200 years old by suggesting that for 98 years of the past 200 years, our sovereignty was exercised elsewhere, and not by us. It means that in that time, our destiny — political, socio-economic, etc — was not in our …

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Anyhow, whichever way we look at our age as a nation, we are definitely not an old nation where bad systems and bad cultures have become entrenched, and no longer capable of being jettisoned, or replaced. And, with our sovereignty now in our hands, one of the advantages of being a young nation is that it is within our will and power to give shape and character to a political system that can work; and create an inclusive socio-economic order that leaves no one outside.

With regard to the political system, it is clear that, in talks about how Basotho should rule themselves after gaining independence, the British gave Basotho political elites two options. One option was to establish chiefly rule; and the other was to establish a system of rule by elected representatives.

The British themselves did not favour chiefly rule. Neither did Basotho political elites want chiefly rule. Their organisations had started their opposition to it less than 40 years into colonial rule. British negotiators’ purpose of proposing chiefly rule as an option was to threaten Basotho political elites and sway them towards choosing the option of liberal democracy and a government by elected representatives.

Give these circumstances, the outcome of negotiations over how Basotho should rule themselves after they gained independence was a foregone conclusion: establishment of a parliament made up of elected representatives who elect a small group from among themselves to manage public affairs.

It can, therefore, be said that the British did not give Basotho enough options of a system by which they would rule themselves in the post-colonial era. For their part, Basotho political elites accepted liberal democracy not because it was appropriate and suitable for Basotho society but because the system promised to close the chiefs out of power and leave it in the hands of elected political elites.

It remains an interesting question just what system of rule Basotho political elites could have come up with if the British had not forced them to choose between chiefly rule, on the one hand, and liberal democracy, on the other.

Looking at our situation today, it is arguable that the system that could have worked better, and one which our political leaders should have chosen, is one where we took melamu against, and for, one another — re nkelaneng melamu — to get public institutions (including parliament) to work as society want, and to secure a desirable public service on all fronts.

This is because processes and institutions of liberal democracy that Basotho political elites chose fail the public every day, and have not improved in the last 58 years; and those who manage institutions abuse their power at the expense of the public. Society is completely helpless because, for several reasons, seeking redress against bad public service is a complete non-starter.

A lot of this has to do with the nature of political leadership. In politicians who came to dominate Lesotho politics, especially after 1998, we have had politicians who are less inclined to protect society from weaknesses of liberal democracy. Instead, they spend more time working out how such weaknesses can benefit them as a group and as individuals.

Thus, by their actions, Lesotho’s political elites of recent years have made it impossible for liberal democracy to take root in the country. Instead of abiding by the written and unwritten rules of the system, they have perverted it into a tool by which to close society from power.

They have sabotaged processes and workings of liberal institutions; and made it impossible for the system to settle and establish itself firmly in society. They do this by means including exploiting weaknesses of the system to introduce and implement anti-democratic measures designed to remove power from society into their own hands to use against society, and for their own benefit.

A good example of this is the anti-democratic and deeply-hated Ninth Amendment of Lesotho’s Constitution. The courts have now declared it to be unconstitutional and anti-democratic. The Amendment should be allowed to die instead of the courts’ decision being taken on appeal.

It is one advantage of being a young nation that we have an opportunity to establish a system of rule that would leave meaningful power in the hands of society and ensure a distribution of wealth that we want.

In social development, it seems that in government circles the meaning of the phrase ‘social development’ has come to be limited to ‘caring for the elderly, orphans, and the needy’. These are undoubtedly noble activities but a lot more should be expected of a government department of that name. The tasks should include attempts to give society a shape, character and essence we wish it to have.

As at present, it is clear that, among Basotho, anti-social characters of individualism and self-centredness have replaced social values of empathy, and abilities to think of, and care for, one another. Cultivation of these anti-social values and characters takes place at schools where kids are encouraged to admire and value personal wealth, and to be competitive in their pursuit for it. Results of this kind socialisation include perpetration of different forms of crime against society.

This area of cultivating of social values is one of the areas that our attempts at ‘social development’ should aim to focus on, taking advantage of our youthfulness as a nation. Rewards of getting this right include not only a society averse to crime but also a happier society.

Finally, were we to start afresh processes of establishing Lesotho’s system of distributing of wealth, one approach would be to start with an assertion that we want a socio-economic system that distributes wealth fairly; where workers get fair living wages; where the unemployed receive income; where the state looks after the needy, orphaned, old aged (by governments’ own admission, the current social welfare system is leaky, and leaves out more people than it reaches); where people with disabilities are cared for; where children do not go to bed hungry; where children are not reduced to begging; where talents do not go to waste; and where healthcare and education are good quality and totally free.

Again, our youthfulness as a nation gives us an opportunity to come up with a fairer system of distributing wealth. We need to shed the current unwanted honour of Basotho being one of the most unequal societies in the world. We are one of the most unequal societies in the world because of the system of distributing wealth that we have chosen. It can be changed.

We have spent the past 30 years trying to reform liberal democracy and its institutions to suit our politicians. We continue to do so. Despite all efforts and costs, socio-economic inequality has deepened: the wealth of the few well-off has increased while the poverty of the majority of the poor has also increased.

The majority of Basotho have seen and felt only worsening quality of their lives. It might be being a young nation gives us an opportunity to do things differently.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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