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Strike a woman and you strike a rock!



Abel Chapatarongo

TEYA-TEYANENG – WHEN Dr Khauhelo Deborah Raditapole learnt that she was to be shuffled to the Ministry of Trade from the Ministry of Natural Resources in 1996, she was not amused and so she resigned.

What had appeared to be an innocuous decision by the then Prime Minister Dr Ntsu Mokhehle was a bitter pill to swallow for Raditapole who had immense respect for the premier who she considered both a father and political mentor.

But what triggered the anger was that Mokhehle had a year earlier transferred her from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Natural Resources. And when she was almost finding her feet in her new ministry, she was being asked to move again.

“Mokhehle did not tell me why I was being moved from the Ministry of Health and when I was moved from Natural Resources I said enough was enough and resigned,” she says.

“I felt very frustrated. I felt we were taking the wrong decisions.”

The decision to resign was a brave one and endeared her with the masses who saw in her a principled politician who refused to violate her own conscience.

Besides, Basotho had never heard that a minister could resign.

Difficult as the decision to resign was, Raditapole says it had to be done “as a matter of principle”.

With Raditapole out of Cabinet, she continued her colourful political career as a backbencher in Lesotho’s parliament.

At 78, Raditapole has seen most of Lesotho’s politicians enter and exit the political stage.

She says when democracy was reintroduced in Lesotho in 1993, the new government led by Mokhehle was driven by a “fear of the Nationalists”, referring to members of the Basotho National Party (BNP) who had ruled the country since 1965.

“That fear took priority over what we wanted to do. The fear greatly contributed to polarization in the country. We needed Basotho to relook and understand politics in a more constructive way.”

She says the polarization hindered economic development for Lesotho as individuals pursued narrow political interests instead of the national good.

“The spirit of patriotism was lacking. We were taught a spirit of negativity which polarized the nation. We saw each other as Nationalists and Congress and not as Basotho. We have to look at the interests of Basotho rather than of the party.”

Raditapole was elected into the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) National Executive Committee at the party’s first annual congress since the end of emergency rule in 1992. She contested in the general election on a BCP ticket in Mabote constituency in 1993 and retained the seat until 1998.

She also served as the first minister of health in the Mokhehle-led government. It was a period of political uncertainty marked by deep suspicions and acrimony among the contending parties.

Raditapole says when she walked into office she found most of the staff at the ministry were hard-core BNP supporters.

“There were huge challenges. We had to break the animosity. I looked at them as professionals and never appointed individuals on the basis of political affiliation which got me into trouble with my colleagues,” she says.

“The morale among staff was also very low. We had to tell them that we are working for the people and not the political parties. It was not easy.”

However, the biggest challenge was in getting the right people with the right skills in key positions in the ministry “that would impact the health delivery services”.

She says she had to keep on telling her staff that “we are professionals first and party people second”.

Raditapole says the period 1994 was marked by uncertainty as the country battled challenges on the political front. They also had to grapple with a burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis that threatened to wipe out a huge chunk of Lesotho’s population.

As Minister of Health she was directly responsible in crafting a coherent strategy to contain the epidemic.

“We had done our groundwork in anticipating the challenges in dealing with HIV but government wheels move slowly and were soon overwhelmed.”

But when she was almost settling at the Ministry of Health, Raditapole was shuffled to the Ministry of Natural Resources where she soon came face-to-face with a whole new set of challenges.

She says she found it odd that Lesotho would boast of its “white gold” when the majority of her citizens did not have access to clean water. At the same time vast quantities of water were also being piped to South Africa.

“I could not sleep with a clean conscience and we had to do something.”

Raditapole says when she arrived at the ministry the Phuthiatsana irrigation project had been thrown away after arguments “that it was cheaper to buy cabbages from South Africa”.

She says she worked hard to resuscitate what was originally known as the Jordan basin project which ultimately became the Metolong Dam project to ensure Basotho had access to clean water until she resigned from her ministerial post.

But does she have any regrets?

Raditapole says when she looks back at her life she always battles a lingering feeling that she did not do what she ought to have done.

The break-up of the BCP in 1997 when Mokhehle walked out of the party to form the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) was really painful for her.

The result of that break-up, she says, is that “we have thrown each other away”.

“People who fought so hard for us to be here are being forgotten. When they die we don’t even recognise them. We cannot deny that those people were there during the most difficult period of our lives.”

She says some cadres of the BCP’s military wing, the Lesotho Liberation Army, “never made it back home and their remains continue to lie outside the country”.

“We need to recognise those people who died fighting for their people. By not recognising their efforts we are destroying our history.”

“That is one of my greatest regrets. We use Ntsu’s name (Mokhehle) when we want to campaign but we have not done enough to honour him. Not even a street has been named after him.”

Raditapole says the neglect of the former combatants’ families “perpetuates the spirit of vengeance and polarisation in Lesotho”.

Raditapole was born in Maseru on August 7, 1938 to a father who was a civil servant. She completed her high school at Basutoland High School in 1959 and won a scholarship to study pharmacy in the Soviet Union and later went to the US to further her studies.

She was among the second batch of students sent by the BCP to the Soviet Union to study. She enrolled for a pharmacy degree at Lvov Medical School in Ukraine from 1962 to 1967.

Raditapole says while this was a period of austerity in the Soviet Union with basic things such as sugar, bread and meat in short supply they as foreign students were well catered for.

She says she still has fond memories of the Soviets’ medical system that provided basic care to everyone regardless of whether they could afford or not.

“At every street there was a doctor who conducted medical check-ups. This was routine for the Russians and we found it extremely good.”

After her medical training Raditapole could not immediately come back home due to the existing political climate in Lesotho and the fact that South Africa had declared her persona non grata claiming she had been sent to the Soviet Union “to be trained how to make bombs”.

Raditapole and many of her colleagues found refuge in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which had provided succor to many liberation movements from southern Africa.

She stayed in Tanzania for 10 years until she was invited to come back home by former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane who was then working in the government as a principal secretary in the Ministry of Health.

Raditapole returned to Lesotho in 1981 and worked at the government-owned Lesotho Pharmaceutical Corporation, a flagship company that manufactured drugs for export. The company went bust in the 1990s.

She says while could go about her business without being molested by political zealots she sensed a “stifling political atmosphere” due to the prevailing state of politics.

“They needed my services but knew I had been sent (to school) by the BCP. They knew where I stood politically.”

Raditapole says while serving her country at Lesotho Pharmaceutical Corporation was fun she often clashed with some white officials hired at the company over policy matters.

“They wanted to produce sub-standard products because they were for the poor and I could not take that. I believed that what is good for the white-man is also good for the blackman.”

She says the coup of 1986 came as a relief to her and her allies in the BCP who celebrated the military take-over of the government.

“The general feeling was that you were not free unless you belonged to the BNP. People were excited after the overthrow of Chief Leabua Jonathan. It gave us a bit of breathing space to say what you wanted and put on the colours you wanted.”

She says the military coup meant that the Order No.4 which banned all political activity and shelved the Constitution after the 1970 election was lifted, giving Basotho a rare sniff at political freedoms in over a decade.

Raditapole says while Lesotho has had its challenges over the last 50 years since independence in 1966 it is a patently false to claim that it has always been all doom and gloom.

“I hate that negativity,” she says.

“It’s not true that we have not done anything good over the years. It would be easy to magnify the sad things and neglect the good. But I am not denying we could have done better.”

“The challenge is to take the baton and make Lesotho greater. A political struggle is a non-ending journey. Once we lose hope we are lost as a nation.”

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