Idle talk of invasion: why Lesotho is safe, for now

By Simon Allison 30 May 2012

Often dismissed as SA’s “10th province”, Lesotho’s independence is a historical oddity that is valuable today – and not only to the Basotho. The truth is, there’s more chance of Limpopo being granted independence than Lesotho being invaded. South Africa gets what it wants from the tiny mountain kingdom anyway, and doesn’t even have to pretend to govern. By SIMON ALLISON.

Overheard in a bar in Maseru on Tuesday night: “They would be sorry if we took it to an international court,” said a well-dressed, well-educated man, muttering into his drink. “Lesotho is not the complete Basotho nation. If we had our historical borders, we’d have a lot more South African land, from the diamond fields all the way to Port St. John.”

This was the first I’d heard – and I suspect the last I will hear – of Lesotho’s claim on South African territory. Even if it is true, the sad reality of Lesotho’s geographical location means it will never be in a position to seriously challenge South Africa on anything.

More common is the sentiment in South Africa – “It’s about time we annexed it anyway. It’s basically the 10th  province already, why not make it official?”.

Again, easier said than done. South Africa’s last military foray into Lesotho came in 1998, and was a complete disaster. SA responded to the desperate cries of distress of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, whose government was being threatened by a coup, so SA sent in some army units to help out. Under-trained and under-prepared SANDF troops didn’t cover themselves in glory, with the intervention characterised by chaos and confusion, a situation not helped by the fact that we used apartheid-era battle plans, drawn up in case Lesotho gave serious support to the ANC.

Nonetheless, Mosisili’s government survived the coup, and Lesotho does have a distinctly South African feel. From a business perspective, South Africa dominates: all the big shops are South African chains, as are most of the main restaurants. Only Lesotho’s Maluti beer stands out against the cultural invasion, somehow escaping the ever-expanding tentacles of SAB. On the radio, presenters discuss South African news almost as much as the local happenings, and while there is a Lesotho TV – heavy on traditional dancing – it comes as part of the DStv bouquet.

But it’s not quite the 10th  province. The money’s different, for a start (although rand can be used interchangeably with maloti). So are the people in terms of national character or pride.

This has political implications. Think about South African provincial elections, which receive very little media coverage and where voter turnout is usually poor; even though ultimately it is the provincial and local governments that have the greatest impact on people’s everyday life. Lesotho, although smaller than most South African provinces, is different. The Basotho don’t care about South African national politics because they’re consumed by their own national politics. It might just be a question of perception and nomenclature, but because they are voting for their prime minister there is huge focus on the elections and the results, a much greater responsibility on the shoulders of whoever is eventually appointed, and closer scrutiny of his government.

This was evident after Saturday’s election, where the convention centre in Maseru was packed with supporters of rival candidates until the results were finally confirmed on Tuesday (in case you missed it: Mosisili won a narrow majority of constituency seats, but because of Lesotho’s unusual electoral system this won’t translate into a majority of parliamentary seats; he’ll have to try to form a coalition or encourage floor-crossing).

Not that any of this would stop South Africa if we really wanted to annex Lesotho. The fact is, for the moment, Lesotho is more convenient as an independent entity. Let’s face it: Lesotho’s woeful underdevelopment would drag South African statistics down significantly, and require vast influxes of cash South Africa just doesn’t have. I’m sure that if the ANC could find a way to grant Limpopo independence it would, for the same reasons. Lesotho would also be difficult to manage – few would take kindly to South African rule, and those nationalist sentiments would express themselves in civil unrest. In other words, annexing Lesotho is more hard work than it’s worth.

Besides, South Africa gets what it needs anyway: water. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is South Africa’s grand plan to guarantee water security into the near future. Because of its height and climate, Lesotho has plenty of water – so much, in fact, that the country uses under 2% of its supply. In a multibillion-rand deal, which will see South Africa fund the construction of huge new dams in Lesotho, the rest of that supply will flow into South Africa.

Again, the government has found Lesotho’s independence useful. The project, which could cost up to $8-billion, has passed largely under the radar of most South African news organisations, who perhaps view it as a foreign issue rather than domestic. And even though corruption was proved in the early parts of the deal, the mud stuck to Lesotho government employees rather than South Africans.

The project will, however, greatly increase Lesotho’s value to South Africa. It will give Lesotho a little more bargaining power in what has historically been a grossly unequal relationship. It will also raise the stakes of the game: if Lesotho plays hardball with its water in the future, suddenly a reliant South Africa might be forced to take matters into its own hands.

For now, talk of annexation is just idle conversation, on both sides of the border. There is no convincing reason for anyone in power to challenge the status quo, and, as long as everyone keeps playing nice, any excursions into Lesotho will require a passport for the foreseeable future. DM

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Photo: Lesotho locals on horseback attend the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase One inauguration ceremony in Mohale in Lesotho March 16, 2004. The $8 billion dam project has won international plaudits as an engineering triumph and an example of spotless government. REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya.


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