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Matsepo Ramakoae and Lesotho’s lost chance to elect its first female leader

Lesotho, a tiny mountain kingdom in southern Africa, has always been dwarfed in size and achievements by its neighbour South Africa.

Many people around the world were not even aware of Lesotho’s existence until the beginning of this year when then prime minister Thomas Thabane and his third wife, Maesaiah Thabane, were accused of murdering Thabane’s estranged second wife, Lipolelo, in 2017.

The ensuing murder case and the ousting of Thabane by his own All Basotho Convention (ABC) party, thrust Lesotho on to the international stage.

While the episode showed Lesotho in a negative light, the resultant vacancy at the State House did give the tiny country an opportunity to get one over on its more illustrious neighbour by doing what South Africa failed to do in 2018 – appointing its first ever female prime minister.

Former Lesotho prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his wife Maesaiah Thabane in 2017. Photograph: Samson Motikoe/AFP via Getty Images

South Africa had the opportunity to install Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma after the resignation of her ex-husband, Jacob Zuma, but the ruling African National Congress (ANC) ended up narrowly choosing Cyril Ramaphosa.

Its a similarity not lost on Matsepo Ramakoae, a battle-hardened veteran of the ABC’s and Lesotho’s treacherous political terrain, who stepped forward in May as candidate for the post of prime minister. But, like South Africa, Lesotho’s ruling politicians instead chose a man: former finance minister Moeketsi Majoro, who has just succeeded Thabane.

Not that Majoro, a savvy former International Monetary Fund (IMF) staffer, is not well-qualified. But when a woman candidate with arguably better credentials steps forward, it would have gone a long way in making up for Lesotho’s failure to fulfil a decades-old pledge to ensure equal representation of women in positions of power by 2015.

In 1997, Lesotho joined other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries in signing a protocol on gender and development which agreed on a phased process of achieving equal representation. By 2005 there should have been at least 30% representation of women in political and decision-making structures.

It is 23 years since the protocol was signed and Lesotho is still some way short of hitting the 30% marker it should have reached 15 years ago.

“I believe I have the qualities to be prime minister,” Ramakoae tells the Guardian.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma congratulates Cyril Ramaphosa on his election as president of South Africa.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma congratulates Cyril Ramaphosa on his election as president of South Africa. Photograph: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty

The 66-year-old politician is a founding member of the ABC. Thabane appointed her deputy finance minister in 2012, and she is savvy enough to appeal to the international community with her solid grasp of development issues.

Unlike Majoro and most other ABC members, she refrained from taking sides in the factional fights that have now battered the party for more than a year. She would have been an ideal oil for these factional troubled waters.

“I am of the view that despite whatever procedures of selection are followed, if everything is done in a broad daylight with observation of democratic systems of fair and equal opportunity of competition, I can become the next prime minister.

“My party has the majority. I am a member of parliament for Matsieng, I have my own constituency and I can be elected. I have experience. I’ve been in the civil service for a long time. I have also been in parliament,” she says.

But it was not to be for the former career civil servant and as even the stride forward that saw a female speaker, Ntlhoi Motsamai, elected was reversed with a male replacement in new speaker, Sephiri Motanyane, Lesotho is again looking at a gulf of gender underrepresentation.

After the most recent general election in June 2017, only 27 of the 120 seats are held by women, a decline from 30 seats in 2015.

The main ruling coalition partner, the ABC, fielded just seven female candidates in the June 2017 polls. Only three won and junior coalition partners fared even worse – the Basotho National Party (BNP), led by a former minister of gender, Thesele Maseribane, had 16 female candidates, none of whom won and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho, the only party led by a woman, Keketso Rantšo, won no seats at all.

Marematlou Freedom Party, the only party to field an equal 30 female and 30 male candidates, had only won one victory: a man.

Its a major concern for groups working to promote gender equality in southern Africa. “One would have expected to see at least 50% of candidates running for elective posts in a party led by a woman,” says a spokesman for Gender Links Lesotho, part of a southern African NGO working across the 15 countries of the region in line with the SADC protocol on gender and development.

It seems achieving equal representation in Lesotho remains a pipe dream, exacerbated by the fact that even when a woman steps forward, as Ramakoae did, she is passed over. But it has provoked anger.

The former deputy speaker Teboho Lehloenya says the under-representation of women was a clear indication that Lesotho has to take urgent action.

“Efforts to empower women and elevate them to positions of power and decision-making have been made, but the progress is painstakingly sluggish and as a result woman are still under represented in parliament,” Lehloenya says.

“Among other factors that deter women from contesting for political power are the intimidation and violence they encounter in the race to elections. It is therefore imperative for policymakers to initiate efforts to eliminate these barriers and expedite process to increase female representation in positions of power and decision-making.”


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