THE country’s restive magistrates who had a turbulent relationship with former Justice and Correctional Service Minister, Mokhele Moletsane, are pinning their hopes on his successor, Semano Sekatle, to resolve their long-standing grievances.
Lesotho’s 50 plus magistrates went on a go-slow since in April and May 2019, bringing the lower courts to a virtual standstill. They also went on a go slow in July last year demanding better working conditions. Apart from their paltry salaries, the magistrates are unhappy that they are not paid transport, telephone, security and responsibility allowances.
The magistrates were particularly livid with former Justice Minister Moletsane who they accused of reneging on commitments to address their grievances. They accused Mr Moletsane of failing to give them feedback from cabinet by the promised date of 28 January 2019 over their request to be each paid a M3000 responsibility allowance. The chief justice is currently paid a M5000 responsibility allowance while all the other judges get M4000. The magistrates are not paid anything even though the Public Service Commission and the Remuneration and Benefits Board had recommended that they all be paid a flat M3000 each in responsibility allowances.
The magistrates subsequently asked Acting Chief Justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase to urgently convene a constitutional court sitting to adjudicate over what they say is “the unconstitutional scenario” in which they are treated as civil servants in violation of the separation of powers edict between the three arms of government; the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
In May 2019, the Acting High Court Registrar, Pontšo Phafoli, told this publication that “Justice Mahase has promised to deal with magistrates’ issues and had already met with the minister (Mr Moletsane) about their issues”.
“She (Justice Mahase) has already got feedback and what is left is how they move forward on the implementation,” Ms Phafoli said without elaborating. However, the magistrates’ grievances remain unresolved and the magistrates’ are now pinning their hopes on new Justice Minister, Semano Sekatle.
Mr Sekatle was moved to the Justice portfolio from the Ministry of Public Service while Mr Moletsane was moved from Justice to Home Affairs by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane in in the latest cabinet reshuffle on 3 October 2019.
Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) secretary, Masupha Kao, recently told the Sunday Express that Mr Sekatle was fully aware of their grievances and he had already committed promised to addressing them during his time as Public Service minister.
“There is a ray of hope because he (Mr Sekatle) seemed keen to help us when we met him and now that he is in charge of our ministry, we believe there is room for him to help us,” Mr Kao said.
“We had several engagements with Mr Moletsane while he was still our minister in attempts to resolve our problems but he told us that the cabinet rejected our pleas.
“We are not sure whether he (Mr Moletsane) really presented our issues to cabinet or if he did, we doubt that he motivated them before his colleagues. We had to accept there was nothing we could do after we were told that reviewing our salaries meant that we would earn more than the judges who are paid at the same scale as deputy principal secretaries.
“Since we are regarded as civil servants, we were advised to approach Mr Sekatle because he is more considerate and more experienced in public service issues. We eventually met him this year and he told us that the government was in the process of modernising the public service and that process would end this month. Since he is still new in the justice ministry, we will wait until November to see if there will be any changes coming our way,” Mr Kao said.
Mr Moletsane had previously promised to table the magistrates’ grievances before cabinet and get back to them by 28 January but he never did. JOALE then wrote to Acting Chief Justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase, asking for her intervention. On 10 May this year, Justice Mahase convened a meeting with the beleaguered magistrates and Mr Moletsane to try find a solution to the magistrates’ issues and that is when Mr Moletsane promised to present the issues to cabinet, only to return a negative answer in July.
Before that in April this year, Mr Moletsane had ridiculed the demands of the magistrates saying that they did not qualify for government houses and that nothing justified their demand for security, another reason that makes the magistrates believe he was not eager to help them.
“Magistrates do not qualify for government houses, the law is only clear on the judges of the High Court that they should be allocated government houses because they hold statutory positons. Just like ministers, the law states that those holding statutory posts should be allocated houses and magistrates do not. They are civil servants.
“However we negotiated the Ministry of Public Service to prioritise magistrates while allocating vacant government houses, especially for those who are renting flats for their own safety and ensure that they are not compromised. It should be understood that this process will not be an overnight one because we cannot evict people to make way for the magistrates.
“Secondly, they (magistrates) raised the issue of their own security but you see the issue surrounding one’s security as a magistrate cannot be guaranteed by allocating a police officer to each and every magistrate; that cannot happen and it has never happened in any country. Security comes with responsibility, they should conduct themselves in a way that their security is not compromised; I am not expecting to see magistrates all over the place in public bars and dangerous places and that’s how they should conduct themselves. I am not saying they should not have social lives but it should be a responsible and respectful one. I have bodyguards as a minister but I cannot be seen going to dangerous places that would compromise my security, so it is also an issue of responsibility because I do not remember anyone that allocates a bodyguards for a magistrate,” Mr Moletsane said.
But Mr Kao accused politicians of taking magistrates for granted even though they did “the hardest work”.
“Politicians take magistrates for granted because their cases are never brought here. I remember one time Ntate (former Prime Minister Pakalitha) Mosisili had a case which was supposed to be heard in the magistrates’ court but the magistrate had to go and hear the case at the High Court premises because it was said the magistrates’ courts were not safe enough for the prime minister.
“We do so much work in very risky conditions but our remuneration and working conditions do not match our work. At times I feel ashamed to be addressed as honourable by civil servants who earn more than we do,” Mr Kao said.