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Obituary of Ntate Ntsukunyane Mphanya, 1931-2016

By Motlatsi Thabane


ON 13 April, 2016, various news media announced the passing-away of Ntate Ntsukunyane Mphanya. He died peacefully surrounded by family in the early hours of that day. He was 85.

One of the first times I saw Ntate Ntsukunyane Mphanya in his person was at the first meeting of the National Dialogue in 1995. The Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) government was opposed to the Dialogue because the party leadership felt that they, who had been elected by an overwhelming majority, in 1993 parliamentary elections, were being forced to discuss issues of governance with groups that had lost elections, and who were not sincere. Ntate Mphanya was leader of BCP delegation at the Dialogue.

After we became friends I often joked with him that the BCP team had been mandated to torpedo the Dialogue, and that he played role of ‘destroyer-in-chief’. He agreed. I told him that they were partly right about lack of sincerity among some groups because, I told him, one lunch-time, during the Dialogue, a BNP stalwart came to a table where a group of us rapporteurs were sitting, and, probably mistaking us for BCP opponents, asked to be helped with ‘tricks’ of making it difficult for the BCP to rule.

In 2001, Neville Pule and I started interviewing Ntate Mphyanya for his autobiography. This lasted close to ten years. A large part of the account that follows is based on his autobiography.

Ntate Mphanya was descendant from the very Bafokeng family that produced Kholu and Mabela, Moshoeshoe I’s mother and first wife, respectively.

He was born on 10 January, 1931, in Mapoteng—home of Josiel Lefela and headquarters of the organisation Lefela led, Lekhotla la Bafo (founded 1919).

In 1959, he married a Mosia girl, Matšeliso Nkejane, in an unorthodox ceremony where he had persuaded a Roman Catholic Church priest to dispense with normal procedures and marry them ‘on the spot’. ’Mé ’M’a-Tlotliso, as his wife was named after the birth of their first-born son, has been Ntate Mphanya’s quiet pillar of strength in all his political and other life tribulations. Like me, anybody who has been at their house, and spent some time with them, will have ‘felt’ the depth of their connection in his voice when he called her: theirs was something way, way beyond contended love and understanding.

Ntate Mphyanya grew up in an environment rich with clean politics, which featured men who were true patriots. His father, Malitsane, was a member of Lesotho’s early intelligentsia—bahlalefi—a social standing which qualified him for a job of an interpreter at colonial courts of law. He received, and read, South African English struggle newspapers, Inkululeko and Egoli. He had great admiration for Basutoland Progressive Association (BPA), and named one of his sons Phamotse, after leader of the BPA. Like members of the BPA, and unlike his neighbour and friend, Lefela, Malitsane believed that chiefs had become corrupt, and that the institution ought to be abolished.

At home, Ntate Mphanya’s father and mother—’Mé ’M’a-Clovis—sang Lekhotla la Bafo songs together, most evenings.

As a little boy, it was his duty to take his father’s newspapers, once his father had finished reading them, to Josiel Lefela, who lived nearby. Lekhotla la Bafo documents that Lefela received, and read, went the opposite direction, by the same ‘courier service’.

In 1921, Malitsane, founded, and led, an organisation, Lekhotla la Toka (LT), whose members maintained that, contrary to what Basotho had begun to be told, hereditary chieftainship was not a Sesotho political custom. In 1938, members of LT, led by him, left Mapoteng, and rode to Paramount Chief’s residence, in Matsieng, where they told Paramount Chief Griffith to step down. Griffith asked them whether they were Lekhotla la Bafo ‘lunatics’, and ignored them.


Ntate Mphanya absorbed elements of this political atmosphere to the last bit. He remembered that, among pictures that appeared on various issues of the Inkululeko and Egoli that he couriered between his father and Lefela, he felt very strongly drawn to pictures of people who were protesting. He wanted to be like such people, when he grew up!

He joined Basutoland African Congress, (BAC, predecessor of Basutoland Congress Party, BCP), in 1953, months after it was formed.

Amidst political tensions and political repression of the 1970s, early in 1974, he led an attempt to seize weapons at Mapoteng Police Station, in line with a party decision for uprisings across the country under leadership of party members. Although the attempt he led was poorly-organised, and failed, at least he had tried: when an agreed time for action struck, many of his colleagues in other districts had fled Lesotho, instead.

In a police crack-down that followed, it was a Basotho National Party (BNP) neighbour who saved him from police arrest and brutality that might have ended his life. A policemen, who was a member of the BNP, stopped other policemen from setting fire to Ntate Mphanya’s house, which the police had doused with petrol, and into which they had forced ’Mé ’M’a-Tlotliso. On his flight into exile, in days that followed, at least once, members of the BNP helped Ntate Mphanya escape arrest by the police, who were looking for him all over.

In exile, in 1978, he undertook a trip to Washington, on BCP business. Not for the first time, somebody in BCP ensured that he did not receive money, from party coffers, for his upkeep in USA. Among those who saved him from financial embarrassment in USA was a BNP supporter who was Lesotho ambassador in Washington. These lessons—of people’s ability and preparedness to show human kindness to other human beings, despite political differences—were not lost to him, and they guided him in many things he did in life.

In Botswana, in the 1980s, he asked too many awkward questions regarding what he considered the wrong direction in which the party-in-exile was being taken, and he refused to be part of what he considered un-BCP-like conduct. In response, those who controlled the party-in-exile made it clear to him that he was not wanted in the party. Against that background, he decided to go into business.

’Mé ’M’a-Tlotliso had joined her husband in exile, towards the end of 1974, after months of harassment by the Lesotho police, and months of untold hardship in South Africa. Having to flee and leave her children in Lesotho had torn her inside. She had already made significant strides in business, when Ntate Mphanya decided to follow her. It was the foundation she had laid that served as an important building-block for the success they had in business.

For many years, Ntate Mphanya was Deputy General Secretary of the BCP. In that capacity, he conducted a lot of party business, at a huge personal cost. Years later, he became Leader of the BCP. He was not a very successful political party leader, for a number of reasons. In particular, anyone who knew Ntate Mphanya would know that he would never have made a successful political party leader. He was too honest, and was hugely incapable of the conduct of many of those who lead political parties in Lesotho, today. That was his ‘problem’.


All his life, Ntate Mphanya lived for the BCP, and worked selflessly for the party. His reward for this was naught. When the first BCP cabinet was drawn up, in 1993, he watched as men, including those who had hitherto been unknown in BCP, allocated themselves ministries. He was left out from the initial list of Cabinet Ministers. Although Dr Mokhehle did not say a word as Ntate Mphanya was left out of Cabinet, privately, to Ntate Mphanya, he expressed his dismay—and helplessness—at the conduct of the ‘new forces’ that had taken over BCP.


Ntate Mphanya was able to get into BCP 1993 Cabinet only because nobody was interested in the Ministry of Home Affairs. When it was discovered that, that Ministry had not attracted any ‘taker’, Ntate Mphanya was appointed to it.

Ntate Mphanya was a brave and honest person, and a decent human being; and he brought these, his personal attributes, to his politics. He was an example of how our party-politics has, over the years, rejected good, scrupulous and decent politicians.

He loved this country and loved Basotho, dearly. It was for these reasons that, against enormous and well-argued opposition of his family, he returned to Lesotho, and left a life of relative comfort and peace in Botswana.

The poverty in which the majority of Basotho live today gutted him. He wrote many ideas proposing how poverty should be fought and ended. Other things that broke his heart to pieces included: the extent to which a political clique, in Lesotho, have enriched themselves leaving the rest of Basotho in utter poverty; the fact that Lesotho’s political elite are cultivating the nature and extent of their political divisions among Basotho; and the splintering of the BCP, several times over—fragmentation driven, mainly, by a sordid pursuit of self-interest.

He hated corruption with all his heart. He prided himself that he never stole even a penny, neither in all his service to the BCP nor in government, as a minister, where, seemingly, opportunities to steal public money exist in abundance, for individuals and groups who so are inclined.

Across Lesotho’s political spectrum, his generation of decent politicians are gone. In the BCP, only two of them, that I know of, remain. Those who know must tell us why it is that men like these are unable to get an opportunity to rule in post-colonial Lesotho. We have been reduced to watching, with envy, at well-led and corruption-free countries, such as Rwanda, as their governments make enormous strides in uplifting well-being of society.

Robala hantle, Ntate Mphanya. Robala hantle, Mofokeng oa ’Ma-Ntsukunyane! The Lesotho you pined for, and for which you worked so hard—that is, Lesotho free of the greed and corruption you so detested; Lesotho in which Basotho do not live in fear for their lives; Lesotho in which Basotho’s wealth is shared equitably among them—that Lesotho will happen.

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