Change in Lesotho: how much, and who for?
A new party was victorious in Lesotho’s October election: Revolution for Prosperity, led by business tycoon Sam Matekane, emerged as the major player in a new governing coalition. The change speaks of frustration with a political system marked by internal strife, dysfunction and failure to tackle deep economic and social problems. A planned programme of political reforms, intended to make governments more stable, wasn’t passed ahead of the election as planned. Now Matekane faces the challenge of delivering on his promises – and showing that his move into politics was motivated by more than mere business interests.
Change is on the cards in Lesotho, but how much – and in whose interest – remains to be seen.
The Southern African country’s 7 October election saw a new party, the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), take 56 of the 120 seats of the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house. RFP was only founded in March, by business leader Sam Matekane, said to be a billionaire and Lesotho’s richest person.
As a new party led by a political outsider, the RFP’s performance reflected widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s established parties and political system, viewed as ineffective and driven by narrow self-interest. The All Basotho Convention, the main party in the incumbent government, lost 40 of its 49 seats. Several senior politicians were among those who lost their seats.
Matekane was rewarded for promising a fresh start and committing to accelerate economic development, saying he’d bring his business skills to bear in running the country, including by exploiting the country’s natural resources. While the RFP fell a little short of an overall majority, it will be the dominant partner in a coalition with two smaller parties, the Alliance of Democrats and the Movement for Economic Change.
Lesotho is a small country of around two million people, but such is the scale of political fragmentation that in this election voters could choose from around 65 parties and over 2,500 candidates. No party has won a majority since 2007, when the election results were hotly disputed. It’s common for parties to split and politicians to switch parties during the course of a parliament. Fragmented parliaments lead to unstable coalition governments, which in turn results in ineffective policymaking.
Coalitions have not made for stable and effective governments. The coalition-forming process also confuses voters because ideologies are not a big factor when putting them together.
Lesotho has seen multiple coups since it gained independence from the UK in 1966, and on several occasions the government has requested the help of forces from neighbouring South Africa, most recently in 2018.
Although it commands little global attention, this small country has some big problems. It has the sixth-highest murder rate in the world. Many of the victims are women and children, pointing to high levels of gender-based violence. A chronically underfunded justice system is simply unable to handle the high volume of cases, which combined with an ineffective police force leads to widespread impunity.
Events took a lurid turn in 2020, when Prime Minister Thomas Thabane was forced to resign after being accused of murdering his estranged wife, Lipolelo Thabane. There seems little interest in fixing the criminal justice system among a political class seen by many as corrupt and self-serving.
Alongside crime and political dysfunction comes enduring poverty. Over a third of Lesotho’s population are estimated to live below the global poverty line. The struggling economy was further hit by pandemic restrictions. The pandemic saw numerous strikes, including by healthcare personnel and workers in textiles, one of Lesotho’s key industries, as well as protests demanding economic support and multiple incidents of police brutality.
Political reforms blocked
The 2022 election also took place in a context of thwarted constitutional reforms meant to reduce conflict and bring political stability. These had been years in the making, through a process including political parties, civil society and others, brokered by the Southern African Development Community and supported by the European Union.
The reforms would have made it harder to unseat prime ministers between elections and for members of parliament to switch parties or form breakaway factions. The rationale was that this would make governments more stable, and therefore better able to focus on addressing economic and social problems. Greater trust in politics could also result if politicians continued to represent the parties people voted for.
The process was torturous, but in May all the main parliamentary parties agreed to pass the reforms. However, disagreements followed between the two parliamentary chambers. In August, the law was passed when parliament was reconvened under a state of emergency, the only way it could meet ahead of the election. But a Supreme Court ruling the following month overturned it, on the basis that it had been wrong to impose the state of emergency that enabled its approval.
As a result, yet another election was held on the basis of a system most involved agree is dysfunctional. Parties committed to passing the reforms after the election, and it should be in the interest of the new government to see them through as a way to ensure political stability. But until the law is passed, positions could continue to change, so approval can’t be taken for granted.
Voices from the frontline
Libakiso Matlho is executive director of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho, a civil society organisation that works to promote women’s leadership and eradicate gender-based violence.
One of the expectations voters place on political parties is that they will work on improving service delivery. This includes fixing infrastructure and providing access to water and electricity, among other things. Lesotho also has high rates of unemployment and widespread problems of gender-based violence and femicides, as well as high crime rates that people hope will be addressed by the new government.
Basotho people are not happy with the way the public sector has been managed over the years. Employment is mostly driven by nepotism and political affinities. People are uneasy because political parties on the campaign trail are quick to promise they will fix these things but once in power they fail to deliver.
The failure to pass the Omnibus Constitutional Bill, which had been years in the making, probably had a strong impact on the electoral process, and will definitely have an impact on what happens next.
The bill sought to amend key provisions regarding political parties, candidate selection, floor-crossing in parliament, the appointment of senior officials and the role of the prime minister, whose removal would require a two-thirds majority. In May, all major parties in parliament committed to pass the bill by the end of June, but disagreements held it up much longer.
One of the key issues of contention concerned the electoral law, which only allows party leaders to submit a proportional representation party list. With the current system, 80 members of parliament are elected in constituencies and 40 are elected through a proportional division of votes. Small parties are negatively affected because to get some proportional representation seats, they are forced to come together into a list with larger parties, and if they are unable to merge with other parties they are left out.
Another key issue was the politicisation of the security sector, which contributes to political instability. The reforms proposed a way to deal with this.
The reforms were eventually passed as parliament was reconvened for an urgent session but, following a series of legal challenges, the Constitutional Court declared them null and void at the last minute before the election.
The failure to pass the reforms will also contribute to continuing difficulties in maintaining coalition governments. Lesotho has had coalition governments since 2012 that have never served a full five-year term due to conflicts that led to their dissolution.
Coalitions have not made for stable and effective governments. The coalition-forming process also confuses voters because ideologies are not a big factor when putting them together. This makes voters a bit sceptical that their parties will remain faithful to their mandate.
These were some of the issues the reform was meant to address, but unfortunately they remain unaddressed to this day.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Libakiso. Read the full interview here.
Challenging agenda ahead
As Lesotho’s new prime minister, Matekane now faces the challenge of living up to his promises. Failure to do so can only fuel further public distrust in politics and politicians. Matekane won’t be able to claim he’s a business leader rather than a politician much longer – the minute he entered electoral politics he became a politician, and will be judged as such.
He faces a big agenda: he needs to make inroads on reforming the political system, challenging crime and impunity, and not just growing the economy but ensuring any growth benefits the poorest people rather than his fellow wealthy business leaders.
It’s fair to question whether the richest man in the country will play the role the poorest expect of him. The world has already seen its share of millionaire leaders rising to power on promises of probity – as if huge fortunes somehow made them safe from the temptation of corruption – and creating the expectation they would supercharge economic growth by applying their successful ‘business model’ to the management of public affairs. The evidence so far from around the world isn’t encouraging.
Matekane has already faced accusations of going into politics to protect his business interests, a familiar charge faced by oligarchs turned politicians. He’s associated with the far-from-transparent diamond trade, including through his control of a mining contract at the Letšeng diamond mine, which is 30 per cent government-owned. The Democratic Congress, which will provide the main opposition with 29 seats, had promised to share out the Letšeng contract if elected. Matekane’s also made money by winning government road-building contracts – decisions he now controls.
Matekane’s promise to exploit natural resources has also sent concerning signals to civil society working to protect the environment and defend the rights of communities who may face the negative impacts of potential extractive projects.
If a fresh start is really to be made in resetting politics, rebuilding trust and challenging corruption, Matekane needs to open up the government and work with civil society. He should also move quickly to stick by his commitment to hand over management of all his business interests and respond positively to any information requests on this front.
Public support for Matekane, as an apparently clean pair of hands untainted by failing politics, is understandable. But now his record in government will show whether he’s part of the solution or just another expression of the problem he promised to solve.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government should ensure respect for fundamental civic freedoms and pass the long-delayed package of political reforms.
The new government should commit to engaging with and listening to local communities before proceeding with any new development projects.
The new prime minister must make his business interests transparent and detach himself from the management of this businesses, and the opposition must continue to hold him accountable.
Cover photo by Gallo Images/Phill Magakoe