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Rivals set aside differences, rally behind Matekane

Staff Reporters

AMONG other things, newly-elected Prime Minister Sam Matekane’s Friday inauguration at Setsoto Stadium will be remembered for bringing together bitter political rivals from various countries and enabling them to temporarily bury their differences.

The inauguration ceremony was an event that could have been taken straight from the storylines of a Chinua Achebe novel.

The late doyen of African literature once described the perfect setting for a human being to achieve his ultimate goals as one where the ordinary mortal and the gods both said yes to the occasion. Looking at the Friday setting at Setsoto Stadium, it was clear from the weather and the turnout of key regional leaders, international development partners as well as multitudes of ordinary people that this was not ordinary event: the gods had indeed said yes to Mr Matekane’s ascension to power. Mere mortals had also given their resounding approval to the event.

The weather had been unpredictable in the days leading up to the inauguration. Without warning, Maseru could be pounded by torrential rains at any moment before the Friday shindig.

Perhaps someone had prayed about it, perhaps God simply decided on His own to hold back the rains to ensure that those who were not in the VIP tent for leaders and other important dignitaries were not drenched. Around this time, it can be unbearably hot in Maseru. But on this occasion, even the sun was not harsh. It was neither hot nor cold, it was warm enough for the ceremony to proceed without discomfort to all who were in attendance. It was as though the temperatures had been thoughtfully regulated to allow Mr Matekane, Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Hage Geingob (Namibia), Hakainde Hichilema (Zambia) and former Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro to deliver their speeches without having to worry about any of the extremes of either a stifling heat or biting cold.

There was also a touch of glamour at the event which could have easily gone down as a Hollywood red carpet occasion with all the fancy cars on display. These included Mr Matekane’s own open-topped Free State registered Rolls Royce which allowed him to wave to the appreciate crowd like a rock star. Female guests tuned the occasion into some mini fashion show with their dazzling eclectic dress sense. The entire stadium was buzzing with the excitement and a sense of a new dawn as Mr Matekane took his oath and accepted the instruments of power from Dr Majoro.

It could not have escaped anyone at the stadium that what they were witnessing was a momentous occasion. The sense of expectation and the joy of ordinary Basotho people was infectious.

Unsurprisingly therefore, political rivals from various countries who were at the event, caught the infection and for that day, they set aside their own differences.

For instance other leaders and dignitaries could have feared an uncomfortable encounter and unpleasant words to be exchanged when President Ramaphosa sauntered towards his nemesis and unrelenting critic, the firebrand Julius Malema of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The two men briefly held each other in a gaze before exchanging pleasantries about how it was good to see each other. Much to the delight of those around them, they warmly embraced with Mr Malema breaking into the raucous laughter and broad grin that have become his trademark whenever the mood seizes him.

In those fleeting moments, it was hard to think this is the same Mr Malema who berated Mr Ramaphosa just seven days ago, saying South Africa was “on autopilot” because the president had vacated his seat to conduct his personal business.

There was even a hearty moment between Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor, Ian Khama, who were also seen smiling and hugging as the two allies-turned-foes met on the neutral Lesotho territory.

Messrs Masisi and Khama fell out shortly after the former, came to power in 2018. Mr Khama has been holed up in South Africa on self-imposed exile since November 2021.

It has been said in some quarters that his real reason for fleeing Botswana was to avoid standing trial for unlawful possession of firearms. But Mr Khama denies this and instead insists that he had received a report from a “credible” private security company and other people he trusts that “there was an attempt by Masisi to eliminate me before the 2024 elections”.

For once all the animosity and bad blood that saw Mr Khama dump the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (his father and Botswana’s founding leader, Seretse Khama, party) was forgotten as the former happily chatted and warmly embraced Mr Masisi.

Even Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister Frederick Shava, of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF party, found time to exchange pleasantries with opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader, Nelson Chamisa and is deputy, Tendai Biti. Zanu PF has been accused of acts of violence against Mr Chamisa and his supporters. Some senior officials of Mr Chamisa’s party like legislators, Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole, have been languishing in prison since June this year on trumped up charges of inciting violence. Some CCC supporters have also been killed by Zanu PF supporters as the ruling party continues with its campaign of violence and intimidation ahead of next year’s elections in Zimbabwe.

But at Setsoto Stadium, the ceremonial home of Lesotho’s football, the Zimbabwean belligerents temporarily set aside their differences.

Mr Shava even removed his green, gold, red, yellow, black and white coloured scarf, and placed it on Mr Biti’s shoulders. The scarf has the colours of the Zimbabwean flag but it is synonymous with Mr Mnangagwa and other Zanu PF leaders. They wear it even on hot days. For Mr Biti to wear the scarf, even in jest, suggested a mutual tolerance between the two sides even if for a fleeting moment.

The cherry on top of these was provided by Lesotho’s former prime ministers, Pakalitha Mosisili and Thomas Thabane.

Looking at them holding hands and happily chatting like youthful, exuberant schoolboy buddies, one would have been forgiven for thinking that reports of Mr Thabane twice fleeing Lesotho to escape death during Mr Mosisili’s rule were just fiction.

But Mr Thabane fled in 2014 and again in 2015. He only returned after SADC mediation and guarantees for his safety. Time and the fact that both of them have since exited the political landscape could have played a significant role in the thawing of relations between the two. It must have been heartwarming for the people to see them hand in hand. That it happened at the inauguration of Mr Matekane tells the story of the charm and hope inspired by the advent of the new premier. It certainly bodes well for a future of permanent mutual coexistence and tolerance despite political differences.