(The Star op-ed 10 July 2015)
- Michael Schmidt
When I was growing up, Lesotho was a mystical mountain kingdom where black and white boys enjoyed true friendship as in the idyllic 1975 film e’Lollipop, which I probably saw at the old Star Drive-in, perched on top of a hillock of mine tailings just south of Johannesburg’s city centre. Of course that dream was as fake as the brutal reality that unfolded across South Africa just a year later, for Basotholand was born in warfare as a redoubt against the Zulu, British and Boers, and has suffered from insurrection ever since independence.
And with Sunday Times reporting last weekend that Lesotho is on the verge of sliding back into military dictatorship, “as the army unleashes a reign of terror… arresting, torturing and killing opponents,” the mountain kingdom has entered another period of armed crisis. This is despite South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s shuttle diplomacy over recent months in an attempt to stamp out the fires – which is as starkly at odds with President Nelson Mandela’s gunboat diplomacy in invading Lesotho in 1998, as it is with Thabo Mbeki’s alleged clandestine diplomacy in the 2000s with the SA Police Services kidnapping Basotho opposition activists.
Lesotho’s remote geography, as one of only three countries in the world entirely surrounded by another state, not to mention an economy almost entirely made up of foreign aid, earnings from the Southern African Customs Union, and remittances from migrant labour in South Africa, is dominated by its industrial neighbour which lies coiled around Lesotho like a fat python whose inconsistent foreign policy towards Lesotho has helped fuel the conflict there.
By legend, a man named Lepoqo of the Bamokoteli tribe, with cheekbones as steep as the mountainsides he rode, earned his chops in the late 18th Century in a raid in which he emasculated his enemies by shearing off their beards, the sound of the shears giving him his battle-name, Moshoeshoe. When he succeeded his father as chief of the Bamotokeli in 1820, he united the refugees and his tribe into the Basotho nation and built a defensive position at the Mountain of the Night, or Thaba Bosiu.
Incorporated as a British protectorate in 1868, the vertiginous snowcapped Maluti gained independence in 1966 as Lesotho, and a great-great grandson of its founding father, King Moshoeshoe II, took the throne under a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament dominated by the Basotho National Party (BNP). But peace did not come with independence: the 1970 nullification by the BNP of elections widely believed to have been won by the opposition Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) caused such instability that in 1986, a military coup d’etat transferred executive and legislative powers to the king, who ruled under the advice of a Military Council headed by General Justin Lekhanya, although in 1990 Lekhanya stripped Moshoeshoe II of his powers and exiled him. Lekhanya intended to restore civilian rule, but as experienced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the communist coup attempt of 1991, the old guard’s fears of change saw him toppled in a coup the same year.
Moshoeshoe II was succeeded by his son Letsie III who ruled under the 1993 constitution which cut the king out of political life, still BNP-dominated, but who abdicated in favour of his father in 1995. Yet stability remained illusory as Moshoeshoe II was killed in a car accident and Letsie III had to reassume the throne – this time with political ambitions, for the liberation of South Africa in April 1994 had raised high expectations of change in Lesotho and the country was wracked by mutinies in police, army and prison services. In August 1994, Letsie III lead a faction of the military in staging a coup.
International pressure forced the king to revert to civilian rule within a month, but the damage was done and another incendiary cycle was initiated, with a critical split in 1997 in the ruling BCP which saw veteran leader Ntsu Mokhele take two thirds of MPs with him to form the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). The LCD won the 1998 elections with 79 out of 80 seats, but despite a Southern African Development Community (SADC) commission ruling that the LDC landslide was legitimate, opposition parties, and in particular the BCP-linked military, refused to believe this was so.
Violent protests in Maseru set the stage for a mutiny by junior officers who believed they were toppling a corrupt edifice of South African-swayed senior officers and politicians. The panicked LDC government appealed to SADC for assistance and on 22 September 1998, SANDF and Botswana Defence Force armoured columns rolled into Maseru under SADC auspices, while SADF parachutists secured key points such as the Lesotho Highlands hydroelectric system. I was present and the shock of the invasion was intense: Maseru was looted and burned by armed mobs outraged that SADC armoured vehicles had stationed themselves on the grounds of the Royal Palace, traditionally seen as a sacred safe-haven; and SANDF armour suffered an eight-hour fire-fight at the hands of rebels armed with recoilless rocketry, in capturing the main Makoanyane Military Base.
At diplomatic level, South Africa made the mistake of claiming the mutiny was a coup attempt, which infuriated the opposition all the more. Many Basotho I spoke to at the time feared that South Africa was staging a thinly-disguised annexation of Lesotho as its tenth province. I assured them that South Africa wanted to control their water supply without the burden of healthcare for mountain peasants. Ironically, there is a move within Lesotho to have South Africa annex it – largely driven by migrant labourers who want to be able to move freely and repatriate their earnings easily, and is strongly supported by the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers.
Even Lesotho Foreign Affairs Minister Mohlabi Kenneth Tsekoa stated in 2013 at a ceremony to consolidate cultural ties and enhance business flows between the countries that “Lesotho and South Africa have been one from time immemorial.” At the time, Khadija Patel quoted Johnny Steinberg, writing for the Institute for Security Studies in 2005 , as saying that commentators had argued “that the raison d’etre for Lesotho’s sovereignty vanished at the end of apartheid, and that political incorporation into South Africa is inevitable – or at very least, highly desirable – in the long run.”
But before we get all revanchist and start planning ski lodges in the Maluti, we have to decide what our policy towards Lesotho truly is. Mandela’s kragdadigheid was replaced under Mbeki by a sneaky practice – if not policy – of the SAPS kidnapping opposition activists, for example the abduction by helicopter from her place of exile outside of Bloemfontein of BNP Women’s League deputy leader Malefa Sefora Maphaleba in October 2004. I interviewed her for Saturday Star and she told me that she had been interrogated for eight hours in a remote forest about Basotho politics by policemen who all the time held over her head the threat of forcibly returning her to Lesotho where the previous year she had suffered torture for eight days at the hands of the Royal Lesotho Mounted Police. That threat was real enough as another prominent opposition leader in exile in South Africa had been kidnapped by the SAPS, bundled into the boot of a car and illegally driven across the border into Lesotho to be handed over to his pursuers.
Lesotho remains the hole in South Africa’s heart; ignored for much of its existence, yet desired for its water and cheap labour, then battered in the ring by continual shifts in South African policy which stoked internal fires. It deserves consistent assistance to become a full democracy at last.
· Michael Schmidt is a veteran investigative journalist and defence correspondent. He has written about the 1998 invasion of Lesotho and the illegal rendition of foreigners by the SAPS in his latest book, Drinking with Ghosts: the Aftermath of Apartheid’s Dirty War (2014).
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