OpEd: Rethinking SADC borders: The case of Lesotho
Instead of endless mediation for reforms, should SADC and the AU consider a referendum to give all the people a voice to decide whether Lesotho’s borders should be opened to allow free trade, education and healthcare for the masses?
“Why do we have a border gate to Lesotho, considering that the people of Lesotho are in South Africa? This also applies to Botswana and Swaziland.”
This statement by EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu has added fuel to the already fierce debate about the independence of Lesotho — a country already in political and security intensive care.
Shivambu uttered this statement while he was addressing an EFF political induction session a while back. The question may have been rhetorical but it seems to have elicited many responses. Among them are those taking the opportunity to react to the recent allegations of his younger brother’s involvement in the VBS scandal. They say he wants to continue looting in other countries. He has since disputed those allegations and the EFF stands by him.
These hecklers also accuse the fighters of threatening the sovereignty of Lesotho and other countries.
“Funny to me because this is exactly what the British wanted when they formed the Union of South Africa in Cape Town, but Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland refused to join the Union… So EFF wants to fulfil the dream of colonialists?” said Tseko Moleleki.
From free movement to dual citizenship
The other side is individuals and organisations like the Free Movement of Basotho, which initially started a campaign for the country to amend the constitution to allow dual citizenship.
Their campaign was prompted by long border queues and frequent deportations of Basotho. South Africa has introduced the Lesotho Special Permit, which allows Lesotho nationals to stay in the country for up to four years. Nearly 200,000 applications were received, of an estimated 400,000 Basotho in South Africa.
These estimates are a quarter of the mountain kingdom’s population of two million. They include skilled professionals, unskilled labourers in construction and farms, and domestic workers. Many more are informal traders. They go home at least once a month, or during the holidays, and traffic testifies to this.
Daily border crossers include learners, an indictment of the country’s education; patients who include prime ministers — an indication of the failing or non-existent health system — and traders who buy stock for retailers. Lesotho imports 90% of its consumption, mainly from South Africa.
Another category, believe it or not, is the elderly, who collect monthly pensions in South African border towns. Other borders like Qacha’s Nek to Matatiele, cannot even record the numbers because they just bypass immigration and customs controls as they visit friends and family. For these inter-married families having a passport is simply not a necessity.
Lesotho recently passed its dual citizenship constitutional amendment, and South African Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba announced that trusted travellers including mine workers, learners and holders of Lesotho Special Permits will no longer be required to stamp their passports from 1 November. But for now neither the border traffic nor the influx of illegal immigrants have eased.
Politicians and the judiciary
Political and security tensions have escalated in Lesotho since the alleged coup of 2014, which resulted in three elections in five years, each costing more than R200-million. The R500,000 interest-free loans that are given to each of the country’s 120 MPs were written off when the government collapsed — R34-million in 2015 and R44-million in 2017. This has given rise to views that the instability is a get-rich-quick scheme for politicians.
In her briefing after the SADC summit in Namibia, South African International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu couldn’t mask her frustration about the cost of mediation that both South Africa and SADC have incurred. The bloc has decided to withdraw its standby force in November while the protagonists keep shifting the goalposts.
One, Lesotho Congress for Democracy leader Mothetjoa Metsing, remains in South Africa where he keeps adding to demands for his return. They include personal security and immunity from prosecution for alleged corruption. Sisulu said South Africa was on the verge of imposing travel bans on leaders required to participate in the peace process.
A few days after her statement, Lesotho Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara was suspended. Publicly, the government accuses her of failing to perform her duties, but behind closed doors, of being sympathetic to the opposition, even though she was appointed by the same Prime Minister Tom Thabane during his first stint at the helm from 2012 to 2015.
Former Thabane loyalists say the reason for Majara’s suspension is that the premier realises that she is not a “yes woman”.
Department of International Relations sources said SADC mediation team leader Justice Dikgang Moseneke was perturbed, especially when the opposition pulled out of the dialogue intended to pave the way for constitutional and security reforms. The opposition was demanding that Majara be reinstated.
On Moseneke’s first visit to the country he proposed that the government rescind the suspension, but the government rejected this. On his second visit the parties agreed to return to the reforms dialogue after the deputy prime minister signed a deal for temporary immunity during reforms, presumably for Metsing.
Civil society groups are challenging the deal in the Constitutional Court.
Economic rights or a favour
On that first Moseneke visit the opposition reported that 37,000 farmers were on the verge of losing their annual income from the sale of wool and mohair, calling it a looming economic threat. The government has introduced new regulations that prevent farmers from individually exporting their products, that earn them nearly R1-billion a year.
Government says it wants to increase tax earnings by making it mandatory for brokers to register businesses in Lesotho, and claims to be doing farmers “a favour” by saving them transportation costs to the brokers, based mainly at the Wool Exchange in Port Elizabeth.
But the farmers see this as interference in their established trade relationships and as threatening a market that is picky about buying from untrusted sources — such as the new auction house in Lesotho. They also allege that Chinese-owned Maseru Dawning doesn’t have the capability to grade their products to give them a fair price.
Even worse, Maseru Dawning first came to Lesotho as a partner of the farmers in a property development deal, but subsequently developed interest in the business, and now wants the farmers to sell to it.
Maseru Dawning went to court, but the court ruled that “forcing the farmers to go against their will would be prejudicial to them” and further that “the court declined to import a tacit term” into the parties’ agreement to allow sales between them.
Police and soldiers accompany the minister of trade on a crusade to shut down shearing sheds owned by the farmers’ association, but they are holding on to their produce as the mohair selling season draws to a close.
Human rights body Transformation Resource Centre is investigating possible infringement of human and economic rights.
Call for referendum
For listening to the opposition grievances about the chief justice and the wool and mohair farmers, Justice Moseneke is now criticised by the government as overstepping his mandate.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Lesego Makgothi said on a local radio station that Justice Moseneke should not think Lesotho is a 10th province of South Africa. But mainly young people in the country are beginning to ask if the 120 MPs should be allowed to decide their fate.
Born in Lesotho, former statistician general Pali Lehohla is one of many Basotho who have made South Africa their home. He believes the mountain kingdom, Eswatini and Botswana should propose regional integration with South Africa while maintaining their independence, to open borders, especially for trade.
He also believes that kings and chiefs should spearhead the process by calling on their people on either side of the borders to unite, instead of leaving the fate of Lesotho and the other countries in the hands of politicians.
As far back as 2014, then a former Reserve Bank governor and now South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni wrote: “In this country, which is poor and with a small economy, control of the government is key to the most primitive forms of wealth accumulation... so the very thought of losing state power drives even the best men and women to go absolutely berserk.”
Mboweni said calls to make Lesotho a province of South Africa “are reckless and historically badly informed”, but suggested that the region should start work on establishing a “federal state” arrangement involving South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini.
“These processes should succeed if they are supported by the people. Thus, referendums should be undertaken in all three of these countries to obtain the support of the people,” Mboweni concluded.
But that was then. He recently addressed the annual conference of the Lesotho Institute of Accountants in Maseru as minister of finance.
When Mboweni first went to Lesotho as a young refugee in 1981, he crossed the border without a passport to study at the National University of Lesotho. He has a passport now, but his new role requires permission from the president to travel outside the country, and to this he said:
“It’s precisely for that reason that I don’t like this border, because it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
It was met by applause that nearly became a standing ovation.
The Free Basotho Movement replied to Shivambu’s question, saying: “This debate is long overdue, we want to merge.”
Integration in numbers
As the politicians bicker, FNB economist Jarred Sullivan says Lesotho’s economy is struggling, the tertiary sector is stagnant, and dwindling bilateral trade with South Africa has hampered income from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), which accounts for 36% of government revenues.
Buoyant diamond demand and Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project are promising growth, but Lesotho may have to forfeit its “least developed” status and eligibility under the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, Agoa, that has sustained an average 40,000 jobs in the textile sector.
Absorbing Lesotho’s debt, which is much lower relative to South Africa, amalgamating the respective national defence forces and getting the collective buy-in from other SADC and SACU member states may require long debates.
“However, unifying monetary policy to increase policy cohesion and integrating water resources to help streamline contracting processes and trade present some material and mutual benefits.” concludes Sullivan.
Motion to fund Lesotho referendum
Instead of endless mediation for reforms, should SADC and the AU consider a referendum to give all the people a voice to decide if Lesotho’s borders should be opened to allow free trade, education and health care for the masses, or remain closed until a solution is found?
In 2015 the Department of International Relations reported to Parliament that South Africa alone had spent R46-million on mediation in Lesotho in one year. This figure has certainly multiplied considering the missions undertaken by President Cyril Ramaphosa, several ministers and now Justice Moseneke.
Like they did with the land expropriation amendment, can and should Floyd Shivambu convince the EFF to propose a motion for South Africa and SADC to stop spending money on massaging the egos of selfish politicians, and instead direct that funding towards the referendum?
Now that Tito Mboweni holds the purse as minister of finance, can and should he put his money where his mouth is, and convince the ANC NEC and parliamentary caucus to vote with the EFF?
Or were they just talking and writing for the sake of it? DM
Nthakoana Ngatane is an SABC journalist based in Johannesburg who until recently was the public broadcaster’s correspondent in Lesotho.