Lesotho and South Africa: ‘Good fences make good neighbours’

By Khadija Patel 19 April 2013

On Thursday, the foreign ministers of South Africa and Lesotho met to repair any damage the elements may have wrought on the “walls” between the two countries. By KHADIJA PATEL.

“I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again…” 

Like the neighbours in Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, South Africa and Lesotho’s foreign ministers have been discussing boundaries. The negotiations, it seems, straddle an awkward line between increasing collaboration and cracking down on border controls.

“This is a joint bi-lateral commission, so regularly we will look at things that neighbours look at,” Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said after the conclusion of the Joint Bilateral Commission for Cooperation with the Kingdom of Lesotho. 

“The overarching objective of the [Joint Bilateral Commission for Cooperation (JBCC)] is essentially to consolidate not only the historical and cultural ties that exist between South Africa and Lesotho, but also to enhance bilateral cooperation between the two countries,” South Africa’s foreign minister explained. 

Lesotho’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, Mohlabi Kenneth Tsekoa, declared that there was a special kind of unity between the two countries. “Lesotho and South Africa have been one from time immemorial,” he said. 

Minister Nkonae-Mashabane agreed.  

“Our commonalities do not end only with language, geography and culture, but our destiny, development and hopes are inextricably intertwined, hence our common resolve to continue working together for the emancipation of our people,” she said. 

Despite the declarations of unity and expressions of fraternal relations by the two ministers, the meeting did also expose a particularly sore point between South Africa and Lesotho – border control.

In recent years, cross-border crimes affecting both countries have strained diplomatic relations between South Africa and Lesotho. 

In response to complaints of cattle theft from across the border, South Africa tightened border restrictions in 2010 ahead of the soccer World Cup, and detained several Lesotho nationals after a spate of criminal activity along the border. At the time, President Zuma was quoted as saying, “Many criminals with Lesotho passports have been arrested in South Africa.”

And as South Africa tightened border controls, thousands of Basotho complained that they were unable to travel out of the country, while businesses complained about the adverse effects the new controls were having on them. 

All this in spite of the JBCC which, when it was originally signed in 2001, sought to facilitate the movement of goods and people across the Lesotho-South African border. 

When Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Thabane met with President Zuma last October, he said he had pleaded with the South African president to remove all obstacles “hampering the ease of movement between the two countries”.

“I emphasised the importance of that and pleaded with South Africa to remove all obstacles hampering ease of movement and trade,” Thabane said.

While President Zuma did give an undertaking to ease some of these obstacles, border control has remained a sore point between the two countries. 

The meeting of the two foreign ministers on Thursday sought to smooth over some of the ill feeling that these moves inspired. 

“Today’s focus was equally on increased bilateral trade and investment and what we need to do to ease cross-border movement,” Nkoana-Mashabane said. 

During the Thabo Mbeki administration, the two governments signed the JBCC, which was conceived as a strategic partnership to assist Lesotho to accelerate its economic development and ease cross-border movement between Lesotho and South Africa. 

Implementation has, however, been slow, and the unacceptable rate of development in Lesotho has been blamed by some on the failure to implement the principles of the JBCC. 

In October last year, the Basotho Foreign Minister complained that previous JBCC agreements signed between Lesotho and South Africa had not been effective, owing to “ailing relations between Lesotho and South Africa”.

“We keep the wall between us as we go.”

When pushed on what exactly the discussions on cross-border movement entailed, Nkoana-Mashabane said one of the key issues raised at these meetings was “securitisation”. 

Lesotho’s foreign minister has previously said South Africa’s principal reservations about easing cross-border movement stemmed from concerns that Basotho travel documents were getting into the wrong hands. 

“South Africa’s main concern is that our passport is easily accessible to foreign nationals who violate it by using it to enter South Africa to commit crime,” Thabane said.

“We assured South Africa that we were already working on improving our passport.”

Nkoana-Mashabane on Thursday said that her counterpart had reassured her that “they [would] be using documents that are verifiable and identifiable”.  

“We’ve also said that the Kingdom of Lesotho government confirmed that they are finalising their population registry. They are finalising the production of their documents, [and] we will also be working together with our custom officials to respect these documents and handle them with care,” she said. 

“From both sides, that our people are going to be treated with respect when they present themselves at the customs gates, so we continue to facilitate this movement of goods, services but above all, people.” 

Lesotho’s geographic location – being entirely surrounded by South Africa – makes it extremely difficult to separate the fortunes of one from the other. Ever since the establishment of Lesotho as a British protectorate in 1868, Basotho nationals have participated overwhelmingly in the South African economy as wage labourers, traders, produce exporters and retail consumers. 

Johnny Steinberg, writing for the Institute for Security Studies in 2005, put it this way: “[Lesotho’s] citizens have always participated in the South African economy, and always will.”

He added, “[S]everal commentators have  argued that the South African state has neither the capacity nor the moral authority to keep Lesotho’s  citizens out of South Africa; that border controls between the two countries are bound to whittle away, whether de jure or merely in practice; 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.” 

Incorporation into South Africa nonetheless appears to be the furthest thing from the minds of the two nations’ top diplomats for now. Like the neighbour from across the hill in Frost’s poem, South Africa still believes in mending the wall, not breaking it down. 

“Good fences make good neighbours.” DM

Read more: 

Photo: Herdsmen guide their cattle towards grazing areas near Makopanong village in eastern Lesotho, July 31, 2011. Winter temperatures in the southern African mountain kingdom often fall below freezing and heavy snow fell recently there and in parts of neighbouring South Africa. REUTERS/Matthew Tostevin 


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