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Political leadership — a cause of instability?



For 50 years, Lesotho has experienced political instability in different ways. These include the refusal to accept election outcomes in 1966 and 1998; coup d’états in 1970, 1986, and 1994, military rule in 1986-1993, army mutinies in 1998 and 2015, formation of a government in parliament by a party which had not contested elections in 1997 and 2012, post-election violence, leading to Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervention, in 1998, 2007 and 2014-2016, a collapse of the first three-party coalition government, (accompanied by party-politically-inspired mutinous conduct within the army in 2014), the formation of the second seven party coalition government (following the February, 2015, snap elections), the assassination of the former commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), the army’s arrest, torture and detention of some members of the LDF on allegations of mutiny, and the fleeing of three leaders of opposition parties (as well as many Basotho from different walks of life) to South Africa, in 2015.

This chapter looks at the extent to which the political leadership challenge has contributed to persistent political instability in Lesotho for the past fifty years. It argues that lack of leadership skills among those who have ruled Lesotho in the last fifty years has contributed to political instability in, at least three ways.

Firstly, even before independence, Lesotho’s political elite have always placed their own political survival and control of the state resources above broad-based social and economic development of the country. This has contributed to political instability in that the country has experienced incessant self-serving power struggles by the political elites as they tried to capture the state.
Secondly, once in power, each of the sections of the political elite have established neo-patrimonialism and used the state apparatus to suppress political opposition, or to exact revenge on their perceived and real enemies. This has contributed to political instability in that a vicious cycle of corruption and counter revenge/retribution has developed.

Thirdly, the political elite have failed to build an inclusive nation. Instead they have formed narrow coalitions, often backed by their military allies, in pursuit of self-interested and ill-advised policy decisions.
This style of political leadership which has contributed to political instability and has deeply divided and polarised Basotho society has been allowed to flourish by factors such as the country’s dismal labour reserve history, lack of industrialisation and heavy dependence by the petty-bourgeios actors upon state employment in order to realise their material aspirations.

Leadership Challenges in Post-independent Africa

Scholars, observers and commentators of independent Africa lament the failure of the continent’s political leaders to translate the hope of the continent’s citizens into prosperity, peace and political stability in Africa. Various reasons have been advanced to explain the absence of prosperity, peace and stability. Principal among these is the leadership challenge.

Chris Ekene Mbah (2013:142) argues that the “fundamental cause of African underdevelopment and conflicts lies in the vicious leadership in the continent from the 1960s.” Robert Rotberg (2004: 28) is more damning of African leaders. He describes them as “ . . . poor, even malevolent; predatory kleptocrats; autocrats, whether democratically elected or military-installed; simple-minded looters; economic illiterates. . . ” Martin Meredith (2005: 162) described the first generation of African leaders as people who enjoyed great prestige and high honour.

They were seen to personify the states they led and swiftly took advantage to consolidate their control. From the outset, most sought a monopoly of power; most established a system of personal rule and encouraged personality cults.
In short, some scholars of post-independence Africa have blamed political leadership challenge for the economic, political and social woes that the continent’s people face. Political leadership, according to them, refers to a high-profile behaviour of the often-charismatic individual who occupies the top executive political office in the land as either a prime minister or a president.

In this chapter, an expanded conception of leadership that focuses on coalitions of elites is employed. Following Adrian Leftwich (2009:50), elites are those “small groups of leaders . . . (who occupy) positions of authority and power in public or private organisations or sectors.” Of special interest to this paper are the political elites who occupy positions in the apparatus of the state; they include the security sector, the leaders of political parties who seek to obtain state power, members of parliament; and so on.

The chapter takes the form of an analytic narrative organised chronologically by historical periods. The periods covered are from Lesotho’s independence in 1966, to 2016. Political instability is examined under six periods during which processes of elite coalition formation and decision-making took place:

l) Constitutional conflicts, 1966-1970;
l) Authoritarian rule, 1970-1986;
l) Military rule, 1986-1993;
l) Fragile democracy, 1993-2002;
l) One-party dominant system, 2002-2012;
l) Unstable coalitions, 2012-2016.

It shows how, since independence, the political elites, whether civilian or military, have embarked in bitter struggles to capture the state for their own benefit and that of their supporters. B. M. Khaketla (1972:11) puts it more aptly when he says that Basotho political elites were [are] “self-seeking and power-hungry.” According to K. Matlosa (1997:95) they “ . . . invest more energy and resources on annihilating the opposition than on ensuring social stability and economic development.” The result has been perpetual political instability.

Background: an Unstable Road to Independence

The early 1960s, leading to independence in 1966, were characterised by instability caused by political leaders of the Basutoland Congress Party, BCP, and the Basotho National Party, BNP, as they vied for state power following the pre-independence elections of 1965 which would lead the country to independence, in 1966.
There was also the Paramount Chief who sought extra powers beyond those recommended by the Constitutional Commission of 1963 and finally given to the Constitutional Monarch by the Lesotho Independence constitution of 1966. These actors and their activities were the causes of political instability.

In early 1962, following pressure from all political parties for a rapid transition from representative to responsible government, a Constitutional Commission made up of the main political parties and the chiefs was appointed by Motlotlehi Moshoeshoe II, following the motion (No.62) passed by the Basutoland National Council, BNC, on 19 September, 1961 to make proposals for, among others, the introduction of self-government (Report of the Basutoland Constitutional Commission, 1963:22).

The Commission’s Report of 1963, was adopted by the BNC in February, 1964, as a basis for negotiations with the British Government.
This Report recommended a new pre-independence Constitution, for Basutoland, “which, after a defined interim period of preparation, might with minimum change and maximum ease become the Independence Constitution” (Report of the Basutoland Independence Conference,1966:3). It also recommended that the Paramount Chief should be a constitutional monarch at independence.

Finally, for purposes of this paper and as part of independence, parliamentary elections were to be held in 1965. It was precisely the 1965 elections and the position of the monarch that would constitute the main causes of instability leading to independence and beyond.
The 1965 elections took place under the new Constitution on 29 and 30 April and their outcome surprised not only the BNP but also the BCP.
The BNP won 41.63 percent of the vote and 31 of the 60 seats while the BCP won 39.66 percent of the vote and 25 seats and the MFP won 16.49 percent of the vote and 4 seats (Report of the Basutoland Independence Conference,1966:4).

These results gave the BNP a narrow majority as government and exposed its lack of popular support in that the Opposition parties between them polled 58.37 percent. It, however, fell on the BNP leadership to steer the country to independence. In this endeavour, the victorious BNP government was bitterly opposed by the BCP whose leaders, according to Pule and Thabane (2010:23),

. . . fearing political persecution by a BNP government, found themselves having to make a number of about-turns and modifications to their stances: they made common cause with the paramount chief and supported his bid for certain powers, including control over the internal and external affairs; they advocated the formation of a government of national unity; and they tried to lobby the National Assembly to vote for the postponement of Lesotho’s independence.

As reported in the Report of the Basutoland Independence Conference (1966:6) Ntsu Mokhehle, the leader of the Opposition and of the BCP argued that:

. . . conditions for independence set out, inter alia, in paragraph 8 of the 1964 Conference Report had not been fulfilled and that there should be further consultation with the people of Basutoland, either through new elections or through a referendum before a date for independence was fixed.

He maintained that Basutoland (as Lesotho was known then) was not yet prepared and was being rushed into independence. He also maintained that there was

. . . an open breach between the Paramount Chief and the Prime Minister and that this, together with fears that the Basutoland Government would allow the country to be turned into a Bantustan by South Africa, had caused a great deal of public unease.

On the position of the Paramount Chief, the BNP government was adamant that he would be a constitutional monarch as unanimously recommended in the Constitutional Commission Report, of 1963 and subsequently accepted by all those attending the 1964 Constitutional Conference of that year.
According to B. M. Khaketla (1972:84-85), at the Independence Conference at Lancaster House in London, in June, 1966, Chief Jonathan, the leader of the BNP, emphasised their position as follows:

Perhaps I should emphasise the Government’s attitude in regard to the position of the Paramount Chief. You will recall, Mr. Secretary, that in Section 11 of Command Paper 2371, the British Government undertook that it would not seek to amend the provisions of the Constitution relating to the status and functions of Motlotlehi except at the request of the Parliament of Basutoland.
This matter was debated at length in Parliament recently and all amendments proposing that the Paramount Chief should have greater discretionary powers were defeated. My Government would not wish to depart from this position, both in the interests of stable Government in Basutoland and in the interests, let me emphasise, of the Paramount itself.

It was at this conference that the British government rejected all the BCP’s proposals and accepted the BNP government proposals for independence as well as its stance on the Paramount Chief.
Realising that they had been defeated, the BCP and MFP delegates withdrew from the conference while the Paramount Chief refused to sign the independence agreement. The seeds for post-independence constitutional conflicts leading to political instability were sown and would germinate with dire consequences for the country during the emergent democratic dispensation of 1965-1970.

Constitutional Conflicts

At independence, on 4 October, 1966, the stage had been set for constitutional conflicts that would dog the later part of the 1960s. These conflicts led to political instability as the Monarch, assisted by the opposition parties, confronted and attempted to dislodge the BNP-led government from power.
These constitutional conflicts emanated from the constitutional position of the Monarch. The issues revolved around whether the Paramount Chief, who, after independence and full separation from Great Britain, would be designated “King”, “should be strictly ceremonial” or he would have functions “including control over police and military…” (Khaketla, 1972:11)

Immediately after the declaration of Lesotho’s independence, the struggle for power between King Moshoeshoe II and the BNP-led government reached a crisis, as the monarch refused to accept the terms of the constitution which allowed him only ceremonial functions and minimal powers to appoint. According to Weisfelder (1969:23), the king “appeared to believe that ‘peaceful disturbances,’ were now the appropriate means of compelling the Prime Minister to accept his demands for immediate constitutional amendments.”

In pursuance of his goal, Moshoeshoe II conducted a series of lipitso (public gatherings) around the country. He was supported by opposition BCP and MFP. In calling and attending the meeting, the king was defying Jonathan’s ‘advice,’ and Jonathan said it was an attempt to depose him. This is why he was determined to crush it. The culmination of these lipitso was what the king and his supporters called a national prayer to be held on top of Thaba Bosiu, national shrine, in 1967.

Neither the king nor the opposition supporters reached the top of the mountain. Moshoeshoe II was apprehended by police as he approached the mountain, and opposition supporters who had assembled on the mountain were violently dispersed by the Police Mobile Unit (PMU), formed in 1964. An estimated ten people died from police bullets while several were injured (Khaketla, 1972:147).

In order to pre-empt further unconstitutional activities of the King, (Khaketla, 1972: 152) asserts that on the 5 January, 1967, the “College of Chiefs and the Cabinet compelled the King to sign an agreement…” The provisions of this agreement were that the king, among other things, undertook to cooperate with his government, respect the constitution and refrain from organising lipitso without the knowledge and consent of his government. Failure to abide by the conditions of the document meant that he could be taken as having voluntarily abdicated.

This ‘agreement’ marked the end of the constitutional conflicts between the Monarch and his government. In as far as the opposition was concerned, its ability to continue to challenge the government was contained through the latter’s use of violence, via the agency of the PMU, which was routinely deployed by the government against its opponents, and to quell uprisings in the country during this period and thereafter.
These developments did not, however, mean that the government had managed to increase its popular control and to reduce “the cleavages that divided the (Basotho)nation.” (Bardill and Cobbe, 1983:129) The routine use of the security forces by the government since independence marked a steady move toward authoritarian rule.

Authoritarian Rule, 1970-1986

The year 1970 was a landmark year for the country. On the positive side, it ushered in the first post-independence general elections of the 27 January, 1970, which, by all accounts, were relatively free and fair.
They were won by the BCP with 49.9 percent of the votes and 36 seats, while the BNP got 42.2 percent and 23 seats, and the MFP got 7.3 percent of votes and 1 seat (Macartney, 1973: 493).

On the negative side, the year 1970 ushered in a dark period of sixteen years of civilian authoritarian rule followed by seven years of military rule. Matlosa (1997:95) aptly describes events that unfolded in the aftermath of 1970 elections as contributing to political instability because:

. . . not only . . . [were they] a clear breach or violation of democratic culture and practice, but … [they] laid a firm ground for authoritarian rule. That rule proceeded through both repression and accommodation of opposition elements aimed mainly at entrenching the BNP political elite in power and keeping the BCP at bay. Repression was anchored upon the security establishment while accommodation rested on patronage and pork-barrel politics.

It all began when Chief Jonathan of the BNP, instead of handing over power to Ntsu Mokhehle, the leader of the BCP, annulled the general elections results, declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, put the king under house-arrest and, later, sent him into exile, and arrested and detained the opposition leaders.

A violent repression of the opposition ensued, and the BNP regime asserted supremacy over the state by politicising the public service bureaucracy and the PMU. Throughout the 1970s, Chief Jonathan used carrot-and-stick to tighten his grip on power, but the situation remained volatile for much of his rule, until 1986. The ‘stick’ were the tactics that he used to entrench his regime in power. This included weakening, dividing and undercutting the opposition. In pursuit of the three objectives, for example, the Internal Security Act of 1974, which gave security agencies wide powers of detention and interrogation without trial, was widely used.

At the same time, the security forces were increased and complemented by the establishment of irregular militia of ardent BNP supporters, euphemistically known as Lebotho la Khotso (Peace Corps) (Bardill and Cobbe, 1985: 133). Both the state forces and the BNP vigilantes exacted untold misery on opponents of the government. Bardill and Cobbe (1985:134) quote the figure of more than 1 000 people who died at the hands of these forces, according to International Commission of Jurists of 1974.

The regime also embarked on politicising the public service. It started by purging those who were regarded as opposition supporters. Bardill and Cobbe (1985:134) report that following the 1970 coup, between 600 and 800 public servants were dismissed and their positions were given to BNP supporters. Local administration did not escape this onslaught. District and Development Committees were staffed by BNP supporters. N.W. Pule (2002:179) ominously predicted that “with issues of autonomy and neutrality of the public service having been compromised, the task of successive regimes has been to, at least, ensure a friendly public service which very often means having their own people in key positions.”

As part of the carrot, the regime disarmed its opponents by establishing an Interim National Assembly, in 1973, in place of the suspended elected legislature. Members of the Assembly were Jonathan’s nominees and not elected. Finally, a BCP contingent was successfully drawn into this interim body. Two years later, Jonathan formed a ‘government of national unity’, (Khokanyana ea Phiri–the first by that name), in 1975. Chief Jonathan allocated a cabinet post to G. P. Ramoreboli, deputy leader of the BCP, (who was then leading a faction opposed to Mokhehle), Patrick Lehloenya of the MFP and, later, C. D. Mofeli, leader of United Democratic Party (UDP).

Frustrated by these developments and widespread violent repression carried out by Chief Jonathan’s government, the BCP leadership outside the interim body attempted a poorly-organised uprising, early in 1974, which failed and resulted in many BCP leaders, including Mokhehle, fleeing into exile while others were jailed (Mphanya, 2004:69-88).

In response to the above tactics used by the BNP regime to consolidate its grip on power, the exiled BCP leadership launched the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) in 1979, with the sole objective of toppling the BNP regime through military means.
This noble/legitimate or desperate/infantile (depending which side one supports) response by the BCP leadership would not only exacerbate but also prolong political instability.

The LLA attacked strategic installations, including the blowing-up of the government petrol storage facility in Maseru, post offices, electricity stations and carrying out political assassinations of minister Jobo Rampeta and Koenyama Chakela, a high ranking BCP member who had returned to Lesotho, in 1980. The BNP regime and its supporters responded in kind and a vicious cycle of violence and counter violence ensued.
The BNP regime used heavy-handed methods to contain challenges directed at it. For example, it amended the Internal Security Act of 1974, in 1982 which

. . . progressively gave the government more repressive powers . . . [such as] detention without trial, death in detention involving political prisoners, torture, . . . the blanket criminalisation of communities regarded as pro-BCP (resulting refugee problem) and a number of deaths related to the political situation in the country. (Pule, 2002: 186).

Frustrated by more repression meted to BCP leadership and supporters by the BNP regime as well as LLA’s failure to topple the Jonathan regime, the exiled BCP leadership decided to collaborate with the apartheid regime, in South Africa, as the latter embarked on destabilisation of Southern African states that supported the South African Liberation Movements in the 1980s.

In return, the apartheid regime allowed the LLA to establish a base in QwaQwa and launch attacks against Jonathan’s regime from there. The attacks continued until the military overthrew the BNP regime, in 1986, with the support of the apartheid regime. (See Mothibe and Mushonga, 2013, for a detailed analysis of LLA’s destabilisation policy).
Under the conditions of authoritarianism, mismanagement of public funds and corruption thrived. The Report of the Auditor General on the Public Accounts of Lesotho (1982: 5 and 117) for the three years ending 31 March 1978 paints a total breakdown of financial fiscal discipline and a widespread culture of officials’ failure to comply with financial regulations. The Report stated that, the decade from 1968 to 1978 (during BNP rule):

. . . witnessed a progressive decline and laxity in the management of the financial affairs of the Government . . . Widescale financial indiscipline has led to disregard of financial regulations and instructions and has culminated in the breakdown of accounting controls that has reached catastrophic dimensions in recent years. In-built safeguards against financial irregularities have been vitiated, and this has presented opportunities for the perpetuation of peculation [embezzlement] and fraud which have escaped early detection.

The most worrying aspect of the Report was where it said the Ministry of Finance, led by a long-serving minister, E. R. Sekhonyana, refused to cooperate with the Auditor General, who lamented:

Of particular concern to me is the Ministry of Finance which, by various statutes and regulations, is charged with responsibility for the overall management of scarce financial resources of Lesotho, as well as of being the chief custodian of proper financial letters to the Permanent Secretary for Finance on extremely important issues affecting the disbursements of public funds, but I regret to report that one hundred and twenty of these memoranda, issued between July 1981, remain completely unanswered to date.

The repression that was meted out to the BCP leadership and its supporters by the BNP regime, the decision by the exiled BCP leadership to embark upon armed struggle which ended up with the LLA, and the mismanagement of public financial resources all show how the political elites spared no effort in pursuing political power and access to financial resources for themselves. In these processes, the political elites’ activities led to political instability which characterised this period.

Continued Next Week…….

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges



For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Call that a muffin?



In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Lessons from Israel: Part 3



I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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