In her autobiography that came out last Thursday, parliament speaker, Margaret Nasha, recounts an episode during her stint at the ministry of foreign affairs when President Sir Ketumile Masire sent her and minister Gaositwe Chiepe on an extremely dangerous secret mission to Lesotho.
As Nasha recalls in the book, a normal day turned abnormal when Masire summoned her to State House at around five in the late afternoon. She only became aware of the fact that Chiepe had also received a similar call when the two arrived at the same time. After waiting for what seemed like eternity, the pair was finally ushered in.
“Once the niceties were over, he leaned slightly on his desk and started explaining the purpose of the meeting. We were sitting directly opposite him, and he looked at us with his usual piercing eyes and said, ‘Ladies, I have called you here because I would like to send you on a very important mission.’ He paused and looked at each one of us directly, with an air of finality, before continuing, ‘As you have heard, things have taken a turn for the worst in Lesotho. The army has surrounded the airport, and no planes are allowed to either take off or land in Maseru. I have been talking to President [Nelson] Mandela, and we have decided that a team should be dispatched to Maseru, as a matter of urgency. I am sending you two to Maseru, to be part of that team, to go and eh… see how this situation can be brought under control,” Nasha writes in “Madam Speaker Sir!”
Masire told them that a plane was waiting at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport to fly them to Maseru.
Prior to this meeting, Nasha, Chiepe and in one instance, then army commander, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, had been sent on secret missions to Pretoria to discuss the Lesotho situation and render appropriate advice. However, Nasha had a feeling that this was no routine mission and she had a question for Masire: “Sir, you said the Maseru airport is surrounded by the army. My assumption is that they are armed. What if they shoot our aircraft down?”
The response did nothing to allay her fears. Masire looked at her straight in the eye and responded: “You will have died in the service of your country and our region.”
Some 40 or so minutes later, the two women were on an eight-seater plane with two heavily-armed Afrikaner pilots. Next to each pilot were “some kind of AK 47s or some such powerful, high velocity guns. There were rounds upon rounds of ammunition as well. So we were travelling in the company of people we didn’t know, who were armed to the teeth, and were flying us to a war zone. This is not funny I thought to myself.”
The aircraft taxied and took off and hours later when it descended upon Maseru airport, Nasha saw a riot of uniformed soldiers, all gazing up at the sky as the aircraft came in to land.
She writes: “I had never felt so vulnerable before. We landed safely and thankfully, there was no sound of gunfire anywhere, although a sizeable number of the soldiers came rushing towards the aircraft as it taxied. It came to a complete stop on the tarmac, far from the airport terminal buildings. Our pilots advised us to stay put until they opened the door to let us disembark. Eventually they opened the door and we got out. We were shown to a car and under heavy military escort, driven to the hotel where peace talks were to be held.”