By Malisema Mahloane

Mokhotlong – For a long time Mokhotlong had been regarded as one of the most undeveloped districts in Lesotho. Although various efforts to improve the livelihoods of residents continue to be made by the diamond mines in the district, more work still needs to be done particularly skills development for young people.

There is a huge lack of vocational and tertiary schools in Mokhotlong therefore a majority of young people do not have the advantage to further their studies and advance their skills in an affordable way. Consequently, only the skilled or most qualified will survive in the race to secure better paying jobs. For as long as reliable institutions of higher learning are in the lowlands, current learners in the rural highlands will not survive the future job race owing to the ever rising cost of education which sadly for many young people is presently too expensive.

From an early age, young people from disadvantaged families are forced into agriculture to look after livestock and crops as a way to survive. Some are forced to do labor-intensive jobs at home as their way to acquire critical skills whereas other lucky ones earn while learning-on-the-job from skilled colleagues. However, without formal education, the pay rate for industry-based training is ridiculously low.

Still in the district of Mokhotlong, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) announced construction of yet another big dam in the country named Polihali. Since then, local communities live in anticipation of a better district and lives particularly the creation and provision of jobs to curb unemployment within this informally trained sector.    

According to the Chief Executive of the LHDA Tente Tente, researches and consultations undertaken with various community groups by the LHDA II team showed that, public concerns were largely on the lack of jobs primarily certified skilled labour.  From the consultations it was resolved that the LHDA team should engage the technical and vocational department (TVD) in the ministry of education and training to respond on the matter by conducting trade tests for all individuals with industry-based learning but no qualifying certificate or relevant accreditation. Tente clarified that although their efforts as LHDA are to advance employment opportunities for people living in Mokhotlong by providing them with the needed skills certifications, they should conversely look for other sustainable job opportunities beyond the LHDA projects.

The TVD industrial training manager Tumelo Mota explains trade testing for someone based in Mokhotlong has always been a costly process especially for young people. First an applicant with at least two years’ industrial-based training would obtain a form, fill and send to Maseru where TVD office would provide the day assessment would occur in Maseru. Following this, the applicant arranges at their expense travel and lodging logistics, assessment venue advisably a workshop, resources for undertaking practical and theory test also M120 assessment fee payable to the TVD officer for the entire trade test. All of these expenses, the LHDA pledged to finance for Mokhotlong community members.

The LHDA has since 2019 to date afforded 1,010 people in the bricklaying and plastering discipline with skills testing and accreditation opportunities to facilitate employment-based livelihoods. Wednesday the 29th March 2023 marked yet another successful ceremony of awarding certificates. The minister of education and training honorable Ntoi Rapapa conferred accreditation certificates to 426 males and 3 females now ‘semi-skilled’ at Pitso Ground, Mokhotlong. The minister confirmed the certificates are recognized not only in Lesotho but all over SADC hence the holder is eligible for job offers requiring such experience. The total of tests made in Mokhotlong were 529 prior to this batch, 297 males in Mapholaneng, 108 in Molumong and 76 in Malubalube were all provided trade tests in the rock and bricklaying discipline. Some of these certified semi-skilled cannot read or write, have never been in a classroom but today their work is recognized and respected.

The trade tests are some of the efforts by the LHDA made to guarantee the hard labor to be done at the commencement of the dam construction would be of expected quality. The Polihali branch manager Gerard Mokone reaffirms that the LHDA seeks not only to restore, but to improve the livelihoods of the communities living in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP II) area through initiatives that will be sustainable beyond the construction period. Furthermore, communities in the project area should become beneficiaries of the development long after the construction has ended somewhere around 2028.

Construction of large infrastructure as Polihali surely requires extreme expertise, it is without doubt not many of these newly certified semi-skilled labourers will benefit financially in the main dam construction. However, the LHDA continues to provide community based projects in the areas affected by the LHWP activities, one of which is the water and sanitation (WATSAN) programme – an integral public health component of the environmental action plan (EAP) implemented by the LHDA in-house team aimed at mitigating adverse impacts resulting from the implementation of the LHWP.

Under the WATSAN programme, ventilated pit latrines (VIPs), running clean potable water, solid waste and sullage management systems are provided. In addition, the LHDA provides all resources required mainly for construction. These are concrete bricks, cement, river sand, doors, ventilation pipes, wash bottles, toilets seats. To alleviate poverty, community members working on the water supply programme receive payment for work done. To ensure peace and equitable labour benefits among community members, both the elderly and young people, skilled and unskilled are given work opportunities. The masons and carpenters do receive payment for construction of the structures. Local masons are trained in construction and related skills.

WATSAN programme has proved to be more cost effective and productive compared to other skills development programs with the main objective being to empower the communities with skills to take care of future maintenance works besides undertaking new construction ventures. TVD industrial training manager Mota agrees to a great extent the resettlement programme has had and continues to have huge impact on the community members particularly skills transfer among young people.  As part of skills testing, students had to build VIP toilet floor pads under strict TVD watchful eye. Even so some of the smart local casual labors who were on call to receive on-the-job-training during the WATSAN went a step further and confidently enrolled to be tested by TVD then succeeded only because they took the training seriously.

Although bricklaying and plastering professions are still regarded as jobs for men, 24 year-old Mponeng One is one of the only three females out of 1007 males who bravely enrolled for skills testing and passed. Growing up as the only daughter she watched her father Thuso manage his own building company, Thuso One Construction. Everywhere Thuso went, young Mponeng shadowed him learning diligently what she now calls “survival skills”.  Upon completion of her high school, Mponeng had done badly in Math and Science. Instead of being disappointed she decided to pursue building as a profession. In 2022 she signed up for skills testing by TVD under LHWP. This year she successfully passed her trade test and she is now certified as semi-skilled in bricklaying and plastering. She is now registering a construction company and her dream is to tender for big jobs and be considered when opportunity arises. The little number of females that took part in this phase is evidence that most women skills are lagging behind.  The LHDA CE Tente has therefore asked the task teams to look deeper into disciplines that would absorb women into the playing field.  

So many of the young people who have received TVD skills test certificates cannot hide their joy. 26 year-old Motiisetsi Ntsiki is overjoyed that he can now finally register his construction business as a legal entity. Since he started his business in 2019 he had been working for people charging low prices for the sake of securing jobs. For the past many months he tried to sign up for TVD trade tests on his own but missed the opportunities due to lack of info and other work engagements. When he learnt that the LHDA was offering the skills test opportunity free of charge for every individual with industry-based training, he grabbed along three of his best employees together they signed up. He knew just what the multiple certification meant for his future. Hard a week later he is still happiest man alive, he is confidently in the process of registering his own business MA Ntsiki Construction. Once trade documents are acquired from building department, he will revise service fees and also file for legal help where clients refused to pay. To date, he and his team have built 10 houses, they look forward to getting awarded tenders when huge opportunities arise.  

Thaele Makhetha is grateful to be among the many who attained the bricklaying and welding certificate. He looks forward to sign up for skills test in other disciplines promised which include welding, plumbing and mechanics. He indicates that for many people it was not their will to end their studies prematurely but family problems took part. They are thankful LHDA came to the rescue.

A qualified electrician Toka Ts’ita born and raised in Mokhotlong says there have been concerns by the community members to have a least one institution of higher learning in their district. They have asked past and present members of parliament and government officials to be compassionate enough to assist with the construction of a vocation school or even a technical school just so the level of education in the district is advanced. Sadly, nothing has been done up until now. The district has abundant natural resources being exploited however priority on high paying job opportunities is given to the foreign industry experts, professionals in the lowlands particularly Maseru while the children of Mokhotlong are offered low paying jobs. Nevertheless, they continue to be grateful for the massive efforts being done by the LHDA for alleviating poverty, improving their livelihoods, restoring dignity in the lives of those who had no hope above all investing large by equipping ordinary workers with survival tools such as accreditations.

In the end, many other contractors like Kabelo Khajoane are worried tendering processes lack transparency hence he pleads on their behalf as business owners that for Polihali, LHDA II “nku e se ke ea ba ea Mokhotlong empa sekere e le sa Maseru.”