Lesotho’s 80-year-old prime minister, Motsoahae Thomas Thabane, known to most as Tom, is due to depart State House in Maseru on May 20, seemingly for the last time.
The party he began, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), has reached a deal with most of the other parties in Parliament to remove Thabane and elevate his finance minister, Moeketsi Majoro, to the top office.
Both of Thabane’s terms as prime minister began with a great deal of hope, but both ended in negotiations with emissaries from South Africa and votes of no confidence led by former coalition allies.
His long and complex political career dates back almost to independence and tracks the important changes and continuities seen in Mountain Kingdom politics as the country turned from “hostage” of the apartheid state to politically unstable neighbor of a newly democratic South Africa.
The changes Thabane engineered pointed the way for the arrival of coalition governments in Lesotho and peaceful transfers of power after elections, but also paved the way for legislative gridlock and too-frequent elections based on petty coalition squabbles rather than shifting popular opinion.
1966-2012: From civil service to cabinet
Thabane started his career as a civil servant during the long one-party rule of Leabua Jonathan, who governed the country from independence in 1966 until 1986. In 1972 he became the principal secretary for justice, moving on to health, foreign affairs and interior. When Lesotho’s period of military rule began in 1986, Thabane was made secretary to the military council and then, in 1988, took on the top civil service position — government secretary.
His first ministerial position was under the military rulers in 1990 when he was minister of foreign affairs, information, and broadcasting, but this tenure was brief as a second military coup forced him into exile in South Africa for the first time.
After Lesotho’s return to democratic rule in 1993, Thabane served as the special political advisor to the prime minister, Ntsu Mokhehle, and helped engineer the first of many political schisms in Lesotho when Mokhehle and most members of the ruling Basutoland Congress Party left to form the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).
In 1998, the first elections the LCD contested saw Thabane elected to Parliament from the Ha Abia constituency on the southern outskirts of Maseru, a seat he has held ever since. Thabane served as foreign minister under Mokhehle and when the latter retired in 1998, as minister of home affairs and of communication for the new prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili.
In addition to his time in government, Thabane also started a consulting business that is active in Lesotho and South Africa. Thabane has also become something of an avatar for the state of democracy in Lesotho. His ability to fit into every administration since the 1970s is testament not just to his political savvy, but also to the vanishing differences among political parties, which now number nearly 30 in a country of just two million, and to the unwillingness of top Lesotho political leaders to retire from power.
The country’s convoluted proportional representation electoral system was built to solve the problems that led to an invasion by South Africa’s armed forces after the 1998 general election sparked protests and riots across Maseru, Mafeteng, Roma, and Mohale’s Hoek.
The system has led to the metastasization of political parties for whom, in the most recent 2017 election, it took fewer than 2 500 votes to earn a seat in Parliament. As parties have proliferated, policy differences have largely disappeared — with younger, ambitious politicians seeing no other path to leadership and leaving to form their own parties.
Politics has become a system of spoils that serves a growing cadre of elites but does next to nothing to better the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Basotho, half of whom live on less than the national poverty line of about $36 a month.
It is difficult to overstate Thabane’s political savvy and his ability to work both with and against the same individuals over time. For example, he appointed one of his arch-enemies from two decades ago, Kelebone Maope, to be Lesotho’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Thabane was an early innovator within Lesotho’s political system and his organisational ability was impressive. He was the driving force in the formation of the breakaway ABC in 2006, which was the first large-scale political party split in post-Mokhehle Lesotho.
Impressively, Thabane — the consummate insider — built the party on a narrative of being outsiders fed up with decades of ineffective rule. The ABC established itself first in urban areas but soon made inroads in rural constituencies, to the point where in 2017 it won more votes in the general election than the main two opposition parties combined (including the LCD, the party from which he split).
2012-2020: In and out of prime position
The other side of his longevity and success, however, is a long trail of political rivals looking to unseat him from power. This was seen most clearly at the end of Thabane’s first stint as prime minister. Thabane’s coalition narrowly bested long-term incumbent prime minister Mosisili in the 2012 elections, but the coalition fell apart amid acrid recriminations in August 2014 and an ensuing attempted coup, led by army allies of his junior coalition partner.
After spending time in exile, and being escorted back to the state house under the guard of South African Police and a Southern African Development Community peace-mission, he then proceeded to lose a general election in 2015, with Mosisili regaining power, only to lose it to Thabane once more in 2017.
The Mosisili-Thabane dance at the top of Lesotho’s politics from 2012 to 2018 was notable for ushering in the coalition era of Lesotho politics, and for peaceful handovers between parties of the office of prime minister for the first time in Lesotho’s history.
The most remarkable aspect of all of this was how many times Thabane appeared poised to head off (or be sent off) into retirement, but then refused to relinquish the helm of the ABC, with his rivals unable to oust him.
It is only within the past year that the political brand of Ntate Tom has shown signs of wear. The opposition has been increasingly consistent in its criticism of the government, especially since Mosisili’s retirement paved the way for a younger generation of leadership to take over his party, the Democratic Congress.
Likewise, Thabane was largely outmaneuvered within the ABC, with an opposing faction effectively taking over the party leadership, though Thabane has fought a fierce rearguard battle against this in court.
Murder in the Mountain Kingdom
Still, it was shocking in December 2019 and January 2020 when it came out that the police planned to charge first Thabane’s wife, Maesaiah, and then Thabane himself with the murder of Thabane’s second wife, Lipolelo in 2017.
People in Lesotho were less shocked that these two had been involved, and more shocked that the police were actually pursuing the case. The wrangling and negotiations over this case has led to many delays in the “retirement” of Thabane, and it is still not clear if Tom and Maesaiah will stand trial for Lipolelo’s death or whether an agreement has been reached that will protect them from prosecution.
Thabane’s career and fall are not merely salacious, though. They in many ways encapsulate Lesotho’s depressing transition from flawed-if-noble anti-apartheid enclave to post-Cold War and post-apartheid client state. After five-plus decades of independence, half of those years surrounded by a now-free South Africa, Lesotho has little to show for its years of political contestations other than a class of elite politicians who jostle for power while presiding over a country of vulnerable people whose economic and social needs are rarely addressed.
Tom Thabane’s long years in government, and his wide range of experience on both sides of the border positioned him well to understand and take advantage of the spaces opened up by the bureaucratic expansion required by the international development industry.
This made him a pioneer among Basotho politicians: one who understood that patronage and alliances rather than rigid principles were the keys to power in the post-apartheid dispensation across southern Africa.
Out with the old, in with Moeketsi Majoro
Neither the state nor the development industry has made many measurable improvements for the poor in Lesotho, but both have contributed heavily to allowing a handful of older men to gain and maintain political power.
As the 2020s start, amid a period of great global uncertainty around the pandemic, power is no longer in the hands of Thabane’s generation.
Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro is poised to become Lesotho’s first prime minister born after the end of the second world war; his main challengers are almost all in their forties and fifties.
Whether or not a new generation of leaders will change the development outcomes for poor and otherwise vulnerable Basotho remains to be seen.
However, there are three potential pathways to improving the livelihoods for the most vulnerable in Lesotho if the politicians are interested.
First, an enormous number of Basotho are reliant on cash transfers for their livelihoods, either in the form of the Old Age Pension or the Child Grants Programme.
Both of these programmes should be expanded: Pensions currently are only for those aged 70 or older; they should be expanded to at least age 65 and perhaps even 60.
Child Grants are currently too small to provide true household support; they are paid quarterly and are capped at R3,000/family per year. The size of the grant should be expanded. Second, the fato-fato programme, a temporary employment scheme that focuses on small infrastructure projects, should be expanded.
Lesotho’s roads, footbridges, water pipes, irrigation dams, and electric lines are in varying states of disrepair and routinely result in unnecessary injury or death.
They fail to facilitate the access to services and economic opportunities that Basotho need. A major investment in infrastructure with poor Basotho as the labor force would build the country’s capacity while also helping the neediest. Previous research has demonstrated that, for those of working age, jobs programmes are viewed much more favorably by Basotho than cash transfers.
Finally, the three-plus decades of discussion and plans for decentralisation in Lesotho must be resolved. It is time for substantive power to move from Maseru to local authorities in villages, either elected leaders or chiefs.
The central state should support this decentralisation with block grants and technical assistance, but there must be robust safeguards put in place to ensure that the money is free of elite influence and spent as local authorities see fit.
Local communities have been crying for assistance in development projects since the colonial period, and the cries have only gotten louder in the ensuing years. If a new generation of political leadership truly wants to remake Lesotho, they should focus government on first prioritising the developmental needs of local communities.
As Tom Thabane rides off into political retirement, so too goes the generation of Lesotho’s leaders who took over from the British at independence and worked to see the country through the tumult of the 1970s and 1980s — years when Lesotho was not a democratic state and was a battleground between apartheid security forces and anti-apartheid liberation movements.
Across the continent, the passage of power from liberation movements to the next generation has heralded substantial governance changes, but has also been fraught with peril and cronyism.
Now there is hope that this moment in Lesotho’s politics will bring about a new era. One in which leaders who did not build their careers during a time of deadly suspicion will finally have the gumption to focus on national leadership and poverty eradication for all the kingdom’s citizens, rather than just a privileged, well-connected few.