Thabo Mathasa, 37, says his childhood has made him a bitter man and blames his parents for the suffering that has become his daily bread.
Mathasa says when his father was retrenched in 1983 by a certain South African mine, he was forced to help in providing for his parents and siblings despite being a mere seven-year-old.
“I was only seven years of age when I started herding my aunt’s cattle but at the time, I thought the livestock belonged to my parents,” Mathasa said.
“Every day, I would walk about nine kilometres from my parents’ home to my aunt’s place where the livestock was being kept. I was even bought a donkey to help me cover the long distance I had to travel every day as I herded the livestock.
“I started school when I was around eight years old but could not attend classes every day. I would alternate school-attendance with herding cattle since I had to share the task with another boy who was hired when I started school.”
Mathasa, who spoke to the Sunday Express on Wednesday, said the situation became even worse as he grew older.
“After some time, my father left home and came to Maseru to look for employment but after getting the job, he deserted us, his family.
“My aunt’s husband later died and my grandmother had to help in herding the livestock so that we could continue having something to eat but some of the animals were later given to relatives while others died. This left me with no job and worsened our plight as a family.”
His mother also later left to look for a job, leaving him and his siblings to fend for themselves since the father had already abandoned the family.
And after finding a job, Mathasa’s mother decided to go to her parents’ home in Roma, together with her children, because she did not know where their father was.
“When I went to Roma, I started going to school every day, only herding the cattle during weekends. But in 1990, I stopped going to school and had to herd the livestock fulltime.
“I then told my aunt that I wanted to go back to my father’s home.
“This angered my aunt and her husband, who then said they would never buy shoes for me again, so I would go to school barefoot.”
And when it was time for Mathasa to sit for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), his aunt and her husband said they did not have money to pay his examination fee.
“The examination fee was only M8 during that time but they could not give it to me, yet I would go to the fields and produce food and they never appreciated what I was doing. They hired a herd-boy whose annual pay was one cow but I got nothing.”
He also narrated his aunt had a son who was older than him and that he would walk a long distance (about 20 kilometres) taking his cousin’s clothes to the Dry Cleaner yet he would be doing nothing.
“I would always envy him as he changed different pairs of shoes and fancy clothes while I wore a blanket and walked barefoot.
“Even during cold winter seasons, they didn’t care about me; they would not buy shoes for me. When my cousin didn’t like the clothes he had been bought, he would tear them up without considering giving them to me.
“These days, when my mother burdens me with her financial problems, I remind her of what I went through because of their negligence.”
Mathasa further said when it rains, he shudders involuntarily because the sound reminds him of the tough times when he would stand in the open and the rain drenched him.
“The rain would rain on me because I could not leave the cattle on their own because I would suffer if they happened to disappear.
“I remember the sleepless nights I spent watching the cattle to make sure they didn’t break out of the kraal.”
According to the Monna-Ka-Khomo chairperson, Motlalentoa Hlehlisi, his association was formed after realising the challenges faced by herd-boys and that nobody bothers to help them.
“Most of the herd-boys don’t like their jobs but they are forced by their circumstances to do it. However, as time goes on, they tend to accept their situation and fall in love with it.
“They are supposed to provide for their parents and siblings with the salary they earn but unfortunately, you would find that they don’t even get a single sente from the money they worked hard for”.
Hlehlisi added in some cases, when a child gets to Standard Three and is able to read and write, the parents take them out of school in order to get someone to look after the family’s livestock.
The association, he added, wrote to the Labour Commissioner proposing that herd-boys should have employment contracts stipulating their salaries and also start working at 19 years of age.
“Herd-boys don’t have a minimum wage like other people and they are paid according to the wish of their employers. In some cases, an employer would buy his employee boots and a blanket and that would be a payment.”
According to the International Labour Organisation, herding is considered “the worst form of child labour” because it often prevents them from attending school since it involves long hours and night work and exposes children to extreme weather conditions in isolated areas.