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The girl who dared swim against the tide

Public Eye
9 August 2013

MASERU- Senate—the 36-year-old daughter of the late Principal Chiefs of Ha ’Mamathe, Thupa-Kubu and Jorotane, ‘Masenate and David Gabasheane Masupha— is like a rock that never breaks no matter how many times you strike it.

In the face of an age-old tradition that has denied girls born in the Royal Family to take-over the throne after the death of either one or both their parents, Masupha found herself bruised and heartbroken after the passing away of her mother, Chieftainess ‘Masenate in 2008.

Her father, Principal Chief David Gabasheane Masupha from Ha Mamathe, died in 1996 and was survived by two wives— ‘Masenate his elder wife who had one daughter, Senate and a second wife ‘Malepoqo who had two daughters and a son.

‘Malepoqo is now also deceased.

However, there are loopholes and contradictions in the manner the statutes and Lesotho’s constitution address the issue of chieftaincy.

According to Section 10 of the Chieftainship Act, in the absence of a son following the death of a chief, the surviving spouse can takeover. The section is silent on what should happen in the presence of a daughter or only daughters and speaks only of the first male child of the chief as heir. Other customary laws and statutes make provisions which allow the discrimination of girls on the basis of custom such as Section 18 4c of the Constitution of Lesotho while section 40 of the Chieftainship Act of 1968 says the act should not be interpreted in accordance with customary laws but as it is as a statute. Section 2 of the constitution says if the law is discriminatory it shall be null and void. The dual judicial systems are not harmonised to clearly speak the same language.

However, after the death of Principal Chief Masupha, there was yet another battle over which wife would succeed him. Ironically, customs, discriminating Senate and are of paramount importance, were also used against the second wife who was customarily married.

The courts eventually recognised the first marriage and ruled in favour of the late ‘Masenate who was married under civil rites.

Another battle, this time around, more vicious, followed the death of Principal Chieftainess ‘Masenate Masupha.

“I likened being a girl child to a curse. Although I was the only surviving child from the first and legally binding marriage, I was treated like a stranger in family proceedings. It shocked and disappointed me before it really hurt me deeply. My uncle, Sempe Masupha and my half- brother, came on board and I was automatically counted out, like I was a nobody. They started fighting over the chieftainship,” Masupha said on Friday last week during her first interview since her return from Italy last month.

She had been working as a counsellor at the Lesotho Embassy in Rome before being appointed to act as Ambassador between July 2012 and June 2013.

“I felt the pinch of our customs when, during the squabbles, family members started touching on inheritance, saying girls were not entitled to inherit anything. It hit me hard on my forehead. I came face to face with the reality of the pattern of our customs which only recognise men and their sons. My parents left many fields and a few sheep while I contributed to the construction of the big house at our compound,” she said.

Masupha said from the way things looked, the issue was not about her but her uncle and half-brother.

“Some family members pitied me because I was expected to vacate my house. They held meetings in my house during my absence. One day, my late uncle’s wife called me in Rome and asked if she could stay in my house because the family had asked her to act as chief. I refused on the grounds that she could not move into my house on the basis that she was now a chief and further explained to her that she was still welcome to visit my house but not to occupy it under any circumstances.”

Masupha further said the family squabbles affected her for over a year before she decided to come out and fight for herself.

A professional in her own right, who studied Law, Political Science and Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Natal in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Masupha found herself biting her lips and having sleepless nights while she contemplated her next move and how it was likely to affect her family.

“This was a battle I never imagined I could be involved in. It later became not just an issue about chieftainship but critically, about how a democratic country handles issues that equally affect both men and women. It is an issue of how our country ratified, values and implements international protocols and conventions that fight inequality and what the future of the girl-child in this country holds.” Unsure what the raging chieftainship battle would bring, Senate took her case to the constitutional court of Lesotho in 2010 and in a way, challenging family members who were against her, as well as the laws and customs of her land.

“I had so many unanswered questions concerning the handling of the succession and inheritance of property. I was against the procedure.  It isolated, abused and ill-treated me and made me a victim.”

According to Masupha, all she wants is to understand the position of a girl-child in her family.

“I have learned that this challenge is faced by all girls in Lesotho and other parts of the world and this is why we have the global chorus to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and women.”

She wants to see the Chieftainship Act being clearly explained and interpreted and questions answered on the logic and basis of why girls are deemed unfit to inherit their parents’ property and all that goes with it, in this case: chieftaincy.

“There is irony, promotion of refined and hidden discrimination and indeed, injustice in the legislation which supports chiefs’ wives and then deliberately decides to turn a blind eye on the girl-child simply because of her gender. In my view, this is an injustice at its highest level which continues to ravage the dignity and security of the girl-child in her own home and illegally extinguish whatever hope girls and women might have. This disturbing situation is, indeed, contravening the present political pattern in the world and needs to be corrected. Customs and laws are made by people and therefore, they can be enhanced or changed to respect the reality on the ground,” Masupha said.

However, Masupha’s fight to be declared heir to her late-father’s throne was dealt a body blow when the case was thrown out by the Constitutional Court in May this year.

“I was disappointed by the ruling, which I am appealing because my concerns were not addressed.”

Masupha is a woman who has always worked hard all her life and went ahead to prove being a girl-child does not, in any way, mean inability to break into male-dominated sectors.

Growing up in a large family, she was close to her mother, who stayed and operated businesses in Ha Mamathe.

Although she was royalty, Senate learnt from a tender age that the ‘new world’ did not demand her beautiful looks but education. She also understood how her success would bring comfort to her mother.

After doing her primary education at St Agnes in Teyateyangeng, Senate  moved to St Mary’s Girls High School for her secondary education.

Between 1994 and 1996, she studied BA in Law at the University of Natal . She enrolled to study Honours Political Sciences in 1997 for a year before undertaking studies in Urban and Regional Planning with the same university between 1998 and 1999.

She briefly worked as a researcher at the University of Natal before she moved to the Department of Traditional and Local Government Affairs in Durban as Principal Planner.

Masupha then joined the Johannesburg City Council as Assistant Director for Policy and Research in 2003 and left in 2007 to join Lesotho’s Foreign Affairs. She further enrolled with the University of Rome, Italy, in 2010 and obtained a Masters in International Policies.

She is currently staying at her home in Ha Mamathe and says she has no plans to move to any other place.

“This is my home, which I love so much. I will not abandon it because I belong here.”

Masupha further said she had nothing against her family and would like to see the whole family happier again.

“We don’t choose our families. God found it good for me to belong to the Masupha family. I love them all because they are my family. However, I would be happy if sanity and fairness prevail in this issue,” she said.

The current Acting Principal Chief is Majara Masupha from Mahlatsa in Teyateyaneng.

‘What stands between my niece and the chieftaincy is the constitution’

MASERU-Mr Sempe Masupha, Senate’s uncle , on Wednesday this week said what is standing between his niece and the chieftainship is Lesotho’s constitution.

“Personally, I have nothing against my niece, Senate. Actually, I supported her mother’s marriage after my brother’s death. I am also supporting her now. If Senate was a male-child, she would totally qualify to be the Principal Chief in accordance to our laws and customs. However, since she is a woman, there might be a problem. It is only the laws of this country which can decide how to handle her unique case,” Masupha, 64, said in an interview at his Koalabata home.

Masupha said his fight was not against Senate but to ensure the chieftaincy did not end up in the wrong hands and that the country’s laws and customs are properly followed.

“I have always been there for Senate and her late mother. In fact, as the head of the family, I recognise my late brother, David, was only legitimately married to her mother. I understand the reasoning behind her court application because she wants to understand why chieftainship issues cannot be handled differently. The courts should provide a satisfactory explanation to that question.”

Masupha however, acknowledged times have changed in Lesotho, adding: “Customs too, can be changed based on what Basotho want. We are all aware that after the military rule in Lesotho (1986-1983), there were constitutional reforms. This is evidence enough that indeed the constitution can be changed. What I will not do is go against our laws and customs. If the courts rule in my favour and all issues are straightened, as the only surviving brother of the late Principal Chief, I would honour the confidence the courts would have demonstrated in me and become the leader of my people.”

Senate, he added, was entitled to all the property, which her parents left.

“As we speak, some properties are already in her name. She is entitled to all the fields in Ha Mamathe, which her mother had been utilising when she was alive, the house in Ha Mamathe, a site in Maseru and a developed property also in Maseru,” Masupha said.


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