Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
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:
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 EyeShareThis