Limbo in Lesotho: There goes the neighbourhood

Limbo in Lesotho: There goes the neighbourhood

Whether there was or wasn’t a coup in Lesotho this weekend, it’s clear that the country is going through a dangerous political transition. And like it or not, given our unique geographical relationship, Lesotho’s problems are South Africa’s too. By SIMON ALLISON.

We still don’t know exactly what is going on in Maseru. The picturesque Basotho capital was rocked this weekend when the army raided police stations and barracks, confiscating weapons and killing at least one policeman in the process. Thomas Thabane, Lesotho’s prime minister, fled to South Africa and is calling it a coup; Lesotho’s army, meanwhile, says it was just doing its job by preventing the police from arming a political group. But it’s unclear whether the PM is welcome back in the country – and if he’d be safe should he choose to return.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s clear that the military’s intervention on Saturday is a sign that all is not well in the Mountain Kingdom, where the political elites have been at each other’s throats ever since the run-up to the general election in 2012. When no one secured a clear majority in that vote, an uncomfortable coalition government was formed, with Thabane at its head. Out in the cold was Pakalitha Mosisili, himself Prime Minister from 1998-2012 – despite the fact that Mosisili’s party had won more votes than anyone else.

The continued jockeying for position between Thabane and Mosisili, and the intense infighting within Thabane’s ruling coalition, has effectively hamstrung the new government. Things got so bad that in June, Thabane approached King Letsie III – the largely ceremonial but still influential monarch – and asked for permission to suspend parliament for nine months. The king gave it to him.

The security forces were not immune from all this partisan politicking either. The police, allegedly, are on Thabane’s side, while the army would apparently love to see Mosisili in charge again. Hence those coup accusations: when Thabane saw that the soldiers were taking on the policemen, he thought that they’d be coming after him next. And he could well be right – several reports suggest that his house was targeted in the show of force. The Prime Minister, however, was at that stage safely across the closest border with South Africa. Meanwhile, Thabane’s pick for new army chief was himself the target of an assassination attempt on Sunday morning.

Which brings us to the next big question: what does all this mean for South Africa? The Department of International Relations has been unusually stern in reprimanding the potential coup leaders, warning that it “will not tolerate unconstitutional changes of government”. And the Sunday Times reported that South African special forces had in fact rescued Thabane from his house in Maseru, and escorted him across the border – in other words, that there have already been South African boots on the ground in this particular situation. The Ministry of Defence has strongly denied this report.

Either way, it’s no surprise that South Africa is taking a keen interest in what is happening in Maseru. It’s not just because of Lesotho’s unique geographical position, although this does mean that it’s not really feasible for anyone else to get involved. It’s also because South Africa is heavily invested in a peaceful and stable Lesotho.

“There’s this little thing that South Africa’s invested, like, billions in: the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Basically, we build lots of dams that provide jobs and roads and infrastructure and hydroelectricity to Lesotho, and in exchange we get ALL THE WATER. Gauteng, specifically. The economic engine of SA kind of depends on things being rosy in Lesotho,” explained Kristen van Schie, editor of the SADC Wrap, in a special edition of the weekly newsletter.

Lesotho has plenty of water, far more than its two million citizens can possible use. Much of it runs into South Africa at Aliwal North in the Free State, which isn’t much use for South Africa’s thirsty industrial heartland. That’s where the Lesotho Highlands Water Project comes in. This is an ambitious and expensive project to divert the flow of water from Lesotho into South Africa, so that it can feed Vaal River system and insulate Gauteng from drought and water shortages in the foreseeable future. Phase I of the project is already completed, while Phase II is currently under construction (Phase II will cost the South African government an estimated R9.2 billion).

On paper, the project is a win-win for both South Africa and Lesotho. South Africa gets water security, while Lesotho gets a major boost to its budget from the water royalties that South Africa pays. But it also complicates the relationship between the two countries: Lesotho has suddenly become vital to South Africa’s future, which makes South Africa a lot more interested in keeping the peace in Maseru.

“In the case of South Africa, we are increasingly dependent on Lesotho for water. Therefore, our responses to insecurity in Lesotho are almost hyper-responses. Anything that threatens our water supply makes Pretoria sit up straight,” said political scientist Jo-Ansie van Wyk of the University of South Africa, writing before the current political crisis.

Another explanation for DIRCO’s vigorous response is that there is a lot of South Africa’s diplomatic capital invested in stability in Lesotho. In the last couple of months, President Jacob Zuma has taken a lead role in mediating between the competing political parties. A successful coup would mean that this mediation has failed, miserably, which reflects poorly on South Africa’s pretensions to be Africa’s primary superpower. If South Africa can’t even keep tiny Lesotho in check – a country where Pretoria wields enormous influence – how can it be trusted to broker peace in the continent’s real conflict zones?

The relationship between South Africa and Lesotho has come a long way since the dark days of 1998, when a renegade Mangosutho Buthelezi (temporarily vested with presidential powers) authorised an invasion. But one thing certainly hasn’t changed – for South Africa, Lesotho is simply too important to fail. DM

Read more:

  • Quenching South Africa’s thirst on Good Governance Africa
  • What’s happening in Lesotho on The SADC Wrap
  • SA ponders Lesotho action after army coup on IOL

Photo: Thomas Motsoahae Thabane, Prime Minister of Lesotho, speaks during the general debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 26 September 2013. EPA/STAN HONDA / POOL


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