We drink from the same well

We drink from the same well

It is a short and brief excursion crossing the border into the land of somewhere and nowhere where men come with everything they wanted but oftentimes come back with nothing, for they are robbed of whatever it is that they gathered over the long months in that land where the innocent soon lose their innocence and become something else; something other than that which they left home as on their hopeful journey to the land that their forefathers sweated blood and youth to see it on its exalted pedestal.

It is a short and brief excursion crossing the border into the land of somewhere and nowhere where men come with everything they wanted but oftentimes come back with nothing, for they are robbed of whatever it is that they gathered over the long months in that land where the innocent soon lose their innocence and become something else; something other than that which they left home as on their hopeful journey to the land that their forefathers sweated blood and youth to see it on its exalted pedestal.

This is South Africa, the land whose cities the Basotho of Lesotho (especially) have built to their current status that sees them as gargantuan leviathans that swallow entire villages whole: for the young men leave (or have left since De Beers started mining for diamonds in Kimberly in the May and June or autumn and winter of 1871 and the 4th of October 1886 in Johannesburg’s Langlaagte farm) and are swallowed by the earth in search of elusive gold and diamonds, the young women leave to be maids (domestic workers! Forgive the political incorrectness) or something else.

The fact is, no one that leaves the kingdom ever comes back the same if they go into that country where shantytowns share invisible borders with affluent suburbs; the double standard is the only standard in South Africa.It is a 1000 steps from the Lesotho side to the South African side of the border, not a 1000 yards or a 1000 miles, but all these metrics could well be a million miles for many of the people that try and cross into the latter country. Twenty four years into South Africa’s independence, Basotho find themselves begging to cross at any of the border control points of the 909 kilometre long borderline that surrounds the enclave Kingdom of Lesotho, in fact, as Richard Weisfelder cites in his 2014 paper Lesotho’s interactions with South Africa and regional organisations in Southern Africa that, “South Africa was treating Lesotho ‘worse than . . . under apartheid’.”

A paper published in 2002 by SAMP (Southern African Migration Project) in partnership with Sechaba Consultants and Associates and edited by Professor Jonathan Crush begins its executive summary with the statement:It is impractical to treat Lesotho like any other foreign country in regulating movement across borders. Until 1963 no passports were required to enter South Africa from Lesotho, and it was only the security concerns of the apartheid government that led to travel documents being required.

Following South Africa’s transition to democracy, border controls with Lesotho might reasonably be subject to review. The report argues that streamlining, integration, and relaxation of immigration services at the Free State Border posts would not only be less costly  and more cost-effective, but also mutually beneficial for communities and government agencies on both sides of the border.

What Warden did when he drew Lesotho’s borderline was wrong, but it is a bitter pill Lesotho chose to swallow (meekly, for lack of a better choice). Forced to retreat to an area devoid of any arable land, Basotho and their wise king quietly retreated to the Mountain Kingdom, an area whose craggy mountains reach the sky. The colonialist that did the redrawing of the map must have failed to realise that despite the malice in his cartographic judgement, the area he had forced the peaceable Basotho was rich in minerals, but above all; that Lesotho possessed vast amounts of water.

This water and diamonds would become a bone of contention between South Africa and Chief Leabua Jonathan until his deposition in a military coup d’état in 1986. The following military government gave in to the whims of the apartheid government and signed the deal to sell Lesotho’s waters to the industrial hub of the Witwatersrand. I was a mere boy when the steamrollers rolled in to pave the road to Katse, and it was an interesting time for us as we made clay models of the excavators and made wire trucks and tippers.

What we did not know is that South Africa is not a grateful country. The bridge back then was still the old rickety steel structure that would soon be replaced with a new one with the advent of the Highlands Water Project in 1987 (Chief Leabua passed away on the 5th of April). What I remember about the border crossings back then is that they were short (one did not have to stand in the long queues in baking hot sun just because there is a new ‘biometric’ system being ‘tested’).

All my uncle did was to fill a form, accompany me to the border gate where my passport would be stamped by a white immigration officer in a pilot shirt and I would be on my way to see my relatives in the townships of the East Rand where there was no night for the lights were on the whole time. I would spend the two months of the winter break there, for there was an open option to extend the number of days given at the border post at any Home Affairs branch close to where I was.

I do not remember apartheid, I guess I was too young to care, but I remember the journey past Maputsoe, the 1000 steps to the Ficksburg border gate, and the long ride in the Nissan E20, or the Toyota Hi-Ace (Zola Budd) to the eternal brightness of Johannesburg.Why it only took until South Africa to be ‘free’ for the border crossings to become a living hell I shall never know.

In the post-independence of 1994, crossing the border began to be a strange affair, maybe because the officer that now sat behind the plate-glass or plexiglass had a gold tooth and was the same colour of skin as I was. He or she often did not speak Sesotho, and would merely scribble the stamp he had put in my passport. A new era of gold-toothed border control officials had begun.

Come 1998, South Africa defended ‘her waters’ in what came to be known as ‘Operation Boleas’ at the cost of over a 100 lives (remember the 1982 commando raid where 42 were massacred including 30 ANC members). In a clear sense we have drunk of waters from the same well for most of our history, why South Africa of the present day seems to resort to the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War Scorched Earth tactics when it comes to the treatment of the Basotho is a hard fact to understand.

The border is our lifeline, that cannot be denied, but it is also the lifeline of South African business too (for 90% of the companies in this Lesotho have their headquarters in South Africa).The long queues by Lesotho citizens who want to cross over to South Africa at the border gate do not mean only industry is slowed down, or that South Africa will get its wish to turn us into a province.

The queues mean that South African authorities do not respect the rights of the people that somehow live close to their water wells. To queue at any border (except in those terrorphobic countries) is a crime against the humanity of such individuals as those that may be legally seeking entry into another country or state with proper documents of travel that are within the requirements stipulated in international conventions on cross-border travel. The double standard began 9 years ago when South Africa got the opportunity to host the FIFA World Cup.

For some strange reason, Basotho began to be labelled a security threat by the immigration authorities of South Africa (as if you get into Lesotho first before going to South Africa). The issue of the porous borders was forgotten and the citizen with the passport became the target for the systematic South African Gestapo experiment posing as border control.

South Africa is no heaven to us, it just is the South Africa we took from the status of being a mining town to being the jewel of Southern Africa.When the Gun/Disarmament/Lisemeng Wars of 1880-1881 began it was only because the South African government (call it the Cape Colony government if you feel amorous and romantic) sought to rob the Basotho of guns they had sweated blood for at the Big Hole (Die Groot Gaat) of Kimberly. Morena Lerotholi, Morena Bereng and fellow brothers defied their father’s docile concession to disarm and to handover to the colonial authorities firearms they had sweated for.

Like real men, they refused to back down and the ‘Cape’ government and Bartle Frere and Gordon Sprigg lost the war, because the mountains and their spirits rewarded their valour with a victory over the forces of a government  that thought Basotho we mere baboons. It is 2018, and it seems there are no men willing to put an end to the sadistic torture of Basotho on half-baked basis. Forced to queue for long hours, cars and men and women and children wait while some immigration official feels it right to take a piss break every quarter hour and to chat to some side dish. What I wonder is whether they even care that some of those waiting in the queue service their varied industries.

Weighed down with sanctions in the early part of this century Zimbabweans managed to get good deals with the South African Ministry of Home Affairs. They even went as far as getting South African ID’s and while the ‘biometric’ experiment goes on at Lesotho’s borders, I can bet there is nothing like it at the Beit Bridge border.              Last week I wrote Ahead of Time in which I discussed the essence of time in detail having borrowed words from the best teacher I ever had in high school, Ntate Tšele D. Thokoana.

His favourite proverb was, “A stitch in time saves nine” which in simple words means that sorting out a problem promptly saves one the tedious effort of having to fix it later. The authorities on both sides of the border have in simple words been mollycoddling each other, dilly-dallying instead of dealing with the real ramifications of the real problems the extended border-gate-go-slow pose on the ethos of the people of Lesotho. Basotho are not donkeys, they are free human beings that need to be treated humanely each time they so choose to cross the border into South Africa. It is not a favour that they get to walk the de-paved streets of once-glorious South Africa,

it is a choice inspired by personal wishes to do so which the constitution (chapter 2) of South Africa upholds in its freedom of movement bill of rights. Queuing like cattle corralled into a cattle dip makes me wonder whether they cherish the memory of South Africa like they used to in the day of apartheid when boots, knuckledusters, and bullets ruled. Subjecting free citizens of a sovereign state to the inhumanity one sees at the border gates is nonsensical.First, Lesotho is not a Bantustan. It is by choice hard-fought and negotiated that we managed to keep a kingdom intact.

Of the land stolen we chose to keep quiet about, but this rigmarole at the borders has one thinking that the case may still be arguable in some international land claims court. Second, what is being done at the border gates is not right. Some of us can see through the façade of this human movement control experiment which has been done since time immemorial by the upper classes that think the ordinary citizens are a private property they can do anything they wish with.

Third, South Africa did not win her freedom alone, let us not feign amnesia because we have not forgot the kindness with which the Basotho welcomed the South African émigrés into their homes at great personal risk. Fourth, the question of border control between Lesotho and South Africa is in truth behind time, what remains is sheer denialism and stark megalomania; the truth is that Lesotho is a sovereign state and enclave on the basis of whose its citizens should be respected.

Fifth, what is being done is plain racism, for I bet, citizens from Europe or any other white country do not experience the humiliation of being treated like a nonentity at any ports of entry in South Africa. I flew a few times to South Africa and beyond last year; the treatment was way different from what the common folk are experiencing at the borders across the Mohokare. Sixth, dear South African, don’t you forget that we drink from the same well: Katse Dam springs from these hills and these mountains. Respect the people of Lesotho for theirs is the cup from which you drink for your sustenance. Ae Maan!

Tsepiso S Mothibi

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