Lesotho has been plagued by political instability since its return to democracy in 1993.
Throughout this period, South Africa, often under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has intervened on numerous occasions to steady the political situation in its small, landlocked neighbour. Unfortunately, its frequent involvement in Lesotho’s politics has not helped the mountain kingdom achieve lasting peace. Instead, it has had the unintended consequence of encouraging Basotho politicians to act in intransigent and inflammatory ways.
During the most recent South African attempt to calm conflict in the kingdom, President Cyril Ramaphosa dispatched a delegation headed by former minister Jeff Radebe to Maseru, the capital. Radebe’s visit came in response to the decision by the embattled prime minister, Tom Thabane, to send the army onto the streets of the capital.
While Thabane claimed the deployment was to restore law and order, his actions are widely seen as an attempt to cling to power and avoid prosecution for his alleged role in the murder of his estranged wife.
South Africa’s intervention seems to have temporarily quieted this recent crisis. But it will do nothing to alleviate the long-term problems that cause instability in the country. In fact, it may worsen them.
There are a number of reasons for Lesotho’s chronic instability, including unhealthy civil-military relations, parliamentary rules that encourage the formation of factions, a small and moribund economy that makes holding political office one of the most profitable positions in the country, and a culture of combative politics.
Another factor that aggravates political tensions in Lesotho is the role recurring South African interventions have come to play in the political calculations of competing Basotho actors. While well-intentioned and stabilising in the short term, repeated South African interventions have encouraged the country’s political actors – the government, opposition parties and the monarchy – to spurn compromise and seek conflict.
Brinkmanship and belligerence
Over the years Basotho political actors have been willing to risk instability, even violence, to achieve their maximum positions. This is in part because they have come to expect that if political confrontation in Lesotho skids toward violent confrontation, or reform efforts grind to a halt, South Africa will step in.
Over the past 27 years all of Lesotho’s political actors have at one point or another either requested or engaged in provocative behaviour that induces their larger neighbour’s involvement in the hope that the power of Pretoria will help them prevail over domestic rivals.
The result is continued brinkmanship and belligerence. Political scientists Timothy Crawford and Alan Kuperman describe this as “chronic moral hazard”, a situation in which a
long-term history of intervention in a state perpetuates its instability.
History of conflict
There is a long history of South Africa intervening in Lesotho’s politics. In the early 1990s democratic transitions in both Lesotho and South Africa held out promise for greater peace both within and between these two countries.
In Lesotho, that hope was immediately undercut. Early in 1994 a conflict within the country’s military broke out. Fighting between two factions of the defence force escalated and gun fire was exchanged across Maseru.
Desperate for help, prime minister Ntsu Mokhehle wrote to the South African president, FW de Klerk, asking that he dispatch
a peacekeeping force to Maseru, in order to separate the two sides in the army who are definitely on a bloody collision course…
After discussions with South Africa’s presumptive future president, Nelson Mandela, De Klerk demurred. Instead, intense diplomatic intervention by Southern African Development Community helped to temporarily steady Lesotho’s precarious politics.
But a pernicious precedent was set. When confronted with domestic problems Lesotho’s political actors would look for assistance beyond their borders, rather than seek to compromise with their compatriots. This dynamic has manifested itself many times since.
In August 1998, with protests over a contested election in Lesotho mounting, King Letsie III asked Mandela, who was by then president of South Africa, to help resolve the situation. South Africa’s attempted solution, a Southern African Development Community commission to look into the elections, was inconclusive. A mutiny in Lesotho’s military compounded the crisis.
In September 1998 prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili asked that Southern African Development Community leaders
put together quickly a strong military intervention to help Lesotho return to normalcy.
The ensuing regional intervention force did restore stability, but at a high cost. About 90 lives were lost and Maseru, Mohale’s Hoek and Mafeteng incurred heavy damage.
In August 2014, after an attempted coup against Thabane, he fled to South Africa. He then called on Pretoria to send troops to stabilise Lesotho.
These are only the most dramatic examples of how South Africa – and the Southern African Development Community – have been sucked into Lesotho’s politics.
A more mundane but no less important example is the much-delayed Roadmap for Reforms and National Dialogue. South Africa’s former deputy chief justice, Dikgang Moseneke, is doing his best to shepherd this toward completion.
It will be difficult for South Africa to alter this damaging dynamic because it has an important national interest in preserving stability in Lesotho.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project provides Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub, with much of its water. For this supply to continue, there needs to be relative stability in Lesotho.
What’s more, insecurity in Lesotho would spill into South Africa. It could lead to problems like the diffusion of weapons and an increase in criminality.
One strategy South Africa can adopt is to limit its interventions to situations that truly threaten to escalate into violence. This approach runs contrary to the African Union’s emphasis on conflict prevention. But it has the virtue of forcing the country’s leaders to find compromise themselves or deal with the consequences if they don’t.
The key to this strategy is good intelligence. South African officials must have the necessary information to discern when a political crisis in Lesotho will burst into violent conflict.
Stepping back in all but the most extreme cases would be a major departure from past South African policies. It has potential downsides if a political crisis in the kingdom unexpectedly spins out of control. But it might be worth a try – more than a quarter century of close South African involvement has brought Lesotho no closer to stability.