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New Internationalist


May 1987

new internationalist
issue 171 - May 1987


Lesotho In the 1830s King Moshoeshoe I united the Basotho tribe and founded the nation of Lesotho in the face of the advancing Boers. It became a British Protectorate in 1878 and was granted independence in 1966.

Lying deep in the South African interior this tiny captive state is surrounded by its powerful neighbour. With few natural assets - some diamonds and the hydroelectric potential of its rivers - Lesotho's economy is dependent on South Africa, making its political independence fragile.

Indeed it was with Pretoria's backing that the National Party, under Chief Jonathan, seized power in 1970. And while repressive and corrupt at home, Jonathan slowly abandoned South Africa abroad to attract more foreign aid.

Biting the hand that fed him was to be Jonathan's downfall. His close alliances with the ANC and the communist bloc made Lesotho the target of South African destabilisation policies - support for anti-government guerillas and military raids. A border blockade in early 1986 exacerbated discontent within the divided nation. Jonathan was swept out of office by a widely supported military coup which vested full executive and legislative power in the popular king Moshoeshoe II.

He wants to defend Lesotho's 'existence as a sovereign, independent and non-aligned nation' but it will be difficult. All the country's imports rely on South African transport. All its electricity, fruit and vegetables come from across the border. Up to a third of its male population work in the South African gold mines, and their wages sent home account for about 40 per cent of the country's Gross National Product

Moshoeshoe's plans for rural development are designed to bring self-sufficiency, redistribution of wealth and more local participation through elected village councils whose representatives can ultimately feed into higher levels of government.

Poverty is widespread in rural areas, with most people existing on the staple diet of maize meal and wild cabbage. Although predominantly a Christian country, polygamy and ancestor worship are still common. Traditional medicine coexists with high-tech hospitals in the bustling capital of Masern. Although you may find craftsmen making boxes from empty beer cans, most of the shops are filled with luxury goods and expensive cars glide through the streets.

Giving up his Mercedes for a Toyota, then, was a significant gesture for the king to make. But much more difficult perhaps will be for him to tread the thin line between East and West, and between dealing with Pretoria while maintaining independence from it. In this country with a deep tradition of chieftainship and monarchy few Basotho doubt that Moshoeshoe is best suited for the job.

Julian Ozanne

Leader: King Moshoeshoe II

Economy: GNP per capita $540 (US: $14,110)
Monetary unit
: Lesotho maloti/South African rand Main exports: labour, wool, mohair, diamonds, clothing, footwear. Planned Highlands Water project taking water to S. Africa, will provide foreign exchange income and electricity. Member of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC)

People: 1.5 million

Health: Infant mortality: 107 per 1,000 live births (US 11 per 1,000)

Culture: Mix of African and Western.
Religion: 68 per cent Christian (mostly Roman Catholic); also ancestor worship
Languages: Sesotho and English

Sources: World Bank Development Report 1986; Annual Report 1985, Central Bank of Lesotho; IMF International Financial Statistics January 1986;Alrica Review 1987.

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Widespread rural poverty, wealthy elite in city.

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Dependent on S. Africa and foreign aid.

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Patriarchal society but increasingly important role for women in development.

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Executive monarchy with military council. Party political activity suspended.

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58% Until recently the highest in Africa

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State-run media. Limited political freedoms.

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54 years.
(US 74 years).

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This feature was published in the May 1987 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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