Africa Watch

Political intolerance in Lesotho and South Africa

Deputy President Ramaphosa

With South Africa’s foreign policy under intense pressure lately, the recent political crisis in neighbouring Lesotho presented an opportunity to rebuild a damaged image.

Since independence from Britain in 1966, Lesotho with its two million people has had its fair share of political intrigue and instability. The latest incident is just a continuation of this turbulent political heritage.

For the South African Government (SAG) and for Lesotho it is imperative that a lasting solution is found.

Lesotho’s importance

Lesotho as a state might be small and insignificant and its viability as a state debatable, but for as long as the status quo continues, the Mountain Kingdom’s strategic importance to South Africa is indisputable.

South Africa is a water-thirsty country, estimated to see demand surpass supply within ten years.

The Lesotho Highland Water Project is South Africa’s saving grace, without which Africa’s biggest economy would already have been in very serious trouble.     

Lasting political instability in Lesotho could have dire consequences for South Africa. If violence spreads it could spill over the border, with refugees streaming into the country, water supply disrupted and weapons smuggling ensuing.

Solving the political crisis in Lesotho, however, also could help the SAG redeem itself domestically and internationally after a series of foreign policy controversies, none less spectacular than the recent Al-Bashir fiasco.

President Jacob Zuma is the current rotating chairman of the SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is the SADC facilitator on Lesotho and has had limited success in his role as peacemaker.

Ramaphosa is credited with stabilising political unrest in Lesotho last year and negotiating elections for a new government in February this year. After recent events some observers claim that success was superficial and only papered over the most obvious cracks. 


Allegedly, former Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s replacement of Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli as army chief with Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao last August led to an attempted coup by Kamoli, forcing the prime minister to flee to South Africa.

Thabane then in February lost the tight election, brokered by Ramaphosa, to a seven-party coalition led by former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili by only one seat in parliament.

On assuming power, Mosisili promptly demoted Mahao and reinstated Kamoli, allegedly in contravention of the agreement brokered by Ramaphosa.

Soon after Kamoli's re-appointment several soldiers were arrested and allegedly tortured, following allegations that they were conniving with Mahao and former police commissioner Khothatso Tsooana (who since fled to South Africa) to overthrow the Mosisili government.

This, apparently, happened on orders of Kamoli and, observers claim, compromises Prime Minister Mosisili as complicit and an accessory to inciting political instability.  

All came to a climax when Mahao was shot and killed by members of the LDF in what the government claimed was “a military operation that went wrong”.

Few are buying the explanation given with strong indications of a cover-up of what many believe was a premeditated assassination.

Unsurprisingly, Mahao's family in a statement addressed to international bodies, including the Commonwealth, United Nations, African Union and SADC, challenged the government’s version of events. They are convinced it was a political assassination, orchestrated by reinstated army chief Kamoli.

“Lawless ghetto”

The Lesotho Times quoted domestic political analysts condemning the LDF as having become a “lawless ghetto”.  One warned that “politicisation of the military and militarisation of politics in Lesotho is now a major problem”.

Fear and uncertainty have gripped Lesotho and former prime minister, Tom Thabane, and two other opposition leaders, fearing for their safety, fled to South Africa. They have been followed by legal professionals and media people, citing intimidation and threats from the military.

It is against this background the challenges to the SAG to try and bring order to its troubled neighbour are daunting, with indications that the Mosisili government is reluctant and clearly determined not to be dictated to – particularly by South Africa. 

For as long as the Mosisili government is in power, South Africa might find Lesotho a difficult and annoying neighbour, with many in the country regarding the SAG as less than a neutral and objective referee.  

The Mail & Guardian reported that many in Lesotho are also suspicious of Mr Ramaphosa’s mediation efforts and resistant to any long-lasting proposals from the SAG.

According to South African diplomatic sources, the South African Deputy President received a lukewarm welcome in Maseru in the aftermath of the latest crisis. Despite his success in brokering the previous breakthrough leading to the early elections in February, the new coalition government and many of its followers apparently do not trust him.

The source of this distrust appears to be Ramaphosa’s long-standing friendship with Mothetjoa Metsing, Lesotho’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the smaller Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), and one of Mosisili’s current coalition partners.

Metsing was a mineworker in South Africa and a member of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), once led by Ramaphosa as general secretary.

A feature of Lesotho politics is the ease with which political parties, in particular their leaders, join and withdraw from coalitions, loyalty and trust superseded by self-interest and short-term personal gains. Metsing is a case in point.

Lt-Gen Kamoli is considered a protégé of Metsing who in turn is indispensable for Mosisili to stay in power. Mosisili finds himself on precarious grounds. Taking action against Kamoli might influence Metsing to discard the coalition, as he has done before.

Apparently Prime Minister Mosisili also does not trust the SAG because he believes that it is “too sympathetic to Tom Thabane”. This might explain why Mosisili apparently shunned the earlier Ramaphosa-brokered agreement and reinstated Kamoli as chief of the LDF.

South African diplomatic sources further claim that Lesotho insisted that the investigation into Mahao’s death be done by Zimbabwe and Namibia rather than South Africa. A Lesotho government spokesperson said that “the prime minister wants people who would be impartial and would be credible...”

Gupta connection

In another indication of the Mosisili government’s attempts to put some distance between Maseru and Pretoria is the announcement by the prime minister that he has decided to revoke the diplomatic passports of Gupta family members, saying he does not need them as advisors.

The Guptas were appointed by former Prime Minister Thabane on advice from President Zuma as economic advisors and to help build Lesotho’s international image.

There is resentment by many in Lesotho who claim that South Africa is treating its small neighbour as a “tenth province” and is taking their country for granted and exploiting it by paying “only peanuts” for the water it receives from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

Easy route

The decisions taken last Friday at the hastily convened SADC summit on the Lesotho crisis in Pretoria suggests that the regional body once again preferred a safe and less confrontational approach.

Whether the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry and of an oversight committee to act as an early warning mechanism in the event of signs of instability in Lesotho and to intervene where necessary, will have the desired result appears unlikely.

Unfortunately, as in the case of Al-Bashir, it seems that the Zuma government decided to compromise – a decision that could still return to haunt Pretoria and the current occupants of the Union Buildings.

by Garth Cilliers

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