Lesotho's Mother of All Protests

It came as a shock to all and sundry on August 23 to see thousands of protestors buzzing around the streets of Maseru demanding an audience with Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili in order to air their grievances.

The demonstration was labelled ‘the mother of all demos’ by the media since it was the first one to have pulled a crowd that represented more than just rival political parties and special interest groups. However, it was not only unique in its composition but also in its organisation and its list of grievances.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

November 23rd, 2011

It came as a shock to all and sundry on August 23 to see thousands of protestors buzzing around the streets of Maseru demanding an audience with Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili in order to air their grievances.

The demonstration was labelled ‘the mother of all demos’ by the media since it was the first one to have pulled a crowd that represented more than just rival political parties and special interest groups. However, it was not only unique in its composition but also in its organisation and its list of grievances.

Instead of Lesotho’s usual demonstrations, which involve either trade unions demanding wage increase and better working conditions or opposition parties opposing election results, this unique and well-organised protest was led by non other than a taxi driver, Mokete Jonase.

He was followed by people from all walks of life – from ordinary people to trade union leaders, from youth activists to officials from non-governmental organisations, with a few opposition party leaders following the masses.

According to Jonase, it is a new dawn in citizen patriotism and consciousness in Lesotho. The failure by political leaders from all sides to address Lesotho’s many problems fuelled the revolt. But interestingly, it is not directed against the government or any official authority, but against the pain of poverty, unemployment and the lack of basic services.

The people have just decided to lead their own struggle and political parties have no choice but to follow the people.

Jonase says elections have not solved the problems and therefore people should not wait for elections in the hope that they will change the government but should hold the present government accountable. “It is time for the poor to fight for their rights that have been trampled upon by the rich and we are telling the Prime Minister to do as we wish because we are the people who elected him into office.”

Calling themselves a coalition of concerned citizens, comprising taxi owners, civic groups, youth organisations, NGOs, indigenous business people and workers, the protestors called for a whole host of actions – some big, some small – that illustrate the breadth and diversity of the protest’s participants. Their demands included calls for:

  • The government to be accountable for every cent of taxpayer’s money by taking appropriate action against corruption and fraud in the public service;
  • The government to address the lack of clean water and sewage in villages;
  • The government to address unsatisfactory judicial services that result in cases in court taking too long and that are too expensive for the poor so that only the rich can enjoy ‘justice’;
  • The government to expedite electricity connections in the villages and subsidise electricity to ease the pain of high tariffs on poor and unemployed citizens;
  • The government to initiate a dialogue on the review of the boundary between Lesotho and South Africa boundaries with the aim of restoring the pre-colonial boundaries or alternatively seeking compensation for what they call the conquered territories – namely South Africa’s agriculturally-rich Free State province;
  • The Implementation of free cross-border movement as per the SADC protocol and the bilateral agreement between Lesotho and South Africa;
  • A 100 percent increase in taxi fares to compensate for the poorly maintained roads and a similar 100 percent increase in the salaries of factory workers since they make up the largest share of commuters and are poorly paid and would need the increase to afford the more expensive taxi fares;
  • Prime Minister Mosisili to get out of business and avoid taking part in business associations, particularly he should cease being the chairperson of the Business Council – a partnership between business and government;
  • The government to closely monitor and implement the policy that trading licenses for small businesses should not be given to foreigners. According to the law, foreigners are only allowed to operate large scale businesses while the small scale businesses are reserved for citizens;
  • Civil servants to be allowed to form or join trade unions of their choice since they are currently not allowed by law to be unionized despite the International Labour Organisation stipulating that all workers must be permitted to freely join trade unions;
  • The government to immediately improve service delivery by all government departments, citing as an example of poor service delivery the fact that a Basotho’s application for identification cards and travel documents can take up to five years. Travel documents are very important for the Basotho as a large number seek jobs in South Africa to survive, especially as the rate of unemployment in Lesotho stands at around 50 percent;
  • Unnecessary extras such as per diems that are tax-free for the prime minister and his cabinet as well as their spouses to be removed – since this would be better than the government’s current option of freezing new recruitment in government for the fiscal year 2010/2011; and,
  • The government to hire vehicles from Basotho-owned companies and not from foreign firms.

Prime Minister Mosisili declined to meet the demonstrators, who had demanded that he receive their petition in person. Disgruntled and frustrated, the coalition refused to hand over the petition to the government secretary and preferred to return home with it.However, they vowed to fight on and they have in their future plans a series of stay away protests that are intended to force the prime minister to receive their petition. They have also threatened that their next move might involve not only the demand that their raft of grievances be addressed but also that the prime minister step down.

A representative of the youth in the coalition, Manama Letsie, said: “If our grievances are not addressed we will be forced to call on the international community to impose sanctions in order to force the government to deal with our concerns. We will not end our struggle. We will fight until we achieve what we are demanding. We will not even run away from this country; we will face everything and everyone head-on. What we need is change.”

However, there are doubts that the protesters will succeed in fostering the change they demand given the current nature of their coalition.

Professor Kopano Makoa, a lecturer in politics and public administration at the National University of Lesotho, believes the protests might be able to pull in the crowds but they will have no influence on policy because they are not led and organised by an identifiable entity such as a political party or a trade union – and “therefore they are a non starter”.

He argues: “It’s a struggle without direction because it has no recognised leader or leaders. It is therefore likely to be ignored and dismissed as such by the rulers.”

But rulers in North Africa dismissed their people too – and viewed their protests as leaderless and unfocussed – but the people refused to be ignored and eventually forced through change.

It is too early to know if the people of Lesotho have the will or desire to protest in large numbers until they change their society but the unprecedented nature of Jonase’s demonstration will certainly have given their political leaders cause for concern.

By Bethuel Thai, Editor of Public Eye

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