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Political parties and instability in Lesotho




Election-related conflict has not completely gone away but has continued in a different form. It is no longer about the exclusion of one party by another, as was the case under the FPTP electoral system.
It is now about the exclusion of individuals by their parties. The party list system has brought with it increased competitiveness during intra-party candidate nominations. Consequently, candidate nomination processes including primary elections across parties has become more complex.
The parties’ leadership powers in candidate nominations, which have hitherto not been challenged, are now questioned, amidst high demands, from parties’ rank-and-file, for inclusion in the PR lists.

A plausible case can be made that, the increase in intra-party conflict is the unintended consequence of the MMP system.
In their search for the social and economic dividends, which come with being in parliament as well as in the cabinet, members of parties have increased their demands on party central committees to be more open and transparent in the management of the candidate nomination processes and procedures.

This has often led to confrontation between the party leaders and their structures, resulting in factionalism and splits.
A common trend since the country’s return to multiparty democracy in 1993 has been that the ruling parties (BCP, LCD and ABC) are the ones which have suffered the most splits ahead of the elections, despite having triumphed in the previous elections as shown in Table 2.
What is peculiar to Lesotho political parties is that they are almost all led by leaders who have recycled themselves to remain at the top of the food chain.

I prefer to categorise these leaders as “political re-treads” because they do not offer quality leadership and are incapable of lasting the distance on the journey of political ideas and transformative politics.
Members of Parliament and other senior party leaders who face competition in their constituencies, or feel that they are being pushed to the periphery by the party leaders, have been seen defecting to other parties with the same goal in mind, access to wealth. This paper refers to this group of politicians as “Party hoppers”.

The BCP has produced the most party hoppers, and it has never recovered from its first split of 1997. It was toppled in parliament by its own leader, Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle.
Under pressure from a dominant group within the party’s Executive Committee (known then as the Pressure Group) to relinquish power Mokhehle formed the LCD and immediately claimed that he was still Prime Minister because he had a largest (41) number of MPs who crossed the floor with him, compared to the BCP’s 21 MPs. As evidence of its support, the LCD won all but one of the 80 constituencies on offer.
Following the death of Ntsu Mokhehle, in January, 1999, jostling for the control of the party and strategic positions ensued, and, in no time, the centre could no longer hold in the LCD.

Factionalism, which had never really ended, reared its ugly head between the two factions led by Mokhehle’s successor, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, and his Deputy Kelebone Maope.
A cabinet reshuffle by Mosisili saw the younger brother of Mokhehle, Shakhane Mokhehle, being dropped from the LCD Cabinet and subsequently quitting the LCD with 25 other MPs to form the LPC with Kelebone Maope.
Divisions within the ruling LCD continued even after the 2001 split and notwithstanding the adoption of the MMP electoral system which, it was hoped, would bring about stability. In 2006, the Minister of Science and Technology, Thomas Thabane resigned to form the ABC taking with him 18 MPs.

The ABC’s support base was mainly in the urban areas, including the capital city of Maseru. It won 17 out of the 80 constituencies in its first election contest in 2007. Its support consolidated in 2012 elections where it won 26 constituency seats and obtained 4 compensatory PR seats.
It also gained more seats in the 2015 elections where it won 40 out of the 80 constituency seats and obtained 6 compensatory PR seats. In the 2015 elections, the ABC became the largest party in terms of constituency support eclipsing its mother party, the LCD.

Just like Ntsu Mokhehle, who formed the LCD in 1997 after the challenges directed at his leadership by the members of the National Executive Committee, Pakalitha Mosisili, who was one of the engineers of the BCP split in 1997, also faced serious challenges from the Executive Committee, in 2012.

This resulted in him and 43 other MPs leaving the LCD and forming the DC. The DC went on to win the largest number of constituencies in the 2012 elections, making it the biggest party in terms of constituency support.
It won 41 out of the 80 constituencies and was compensated with 7 PR seats. It was poised to form the government, had it not been for the coalescing of the opposition parties led by the ABC.

Although the DC regained power in 2015 through a coalition with smaller parties, it recently experienced factionalism, which led to yet another split. The faction that was led by the DC Deputy leader, Monyane Moleleki, has since formed a new political party, the Alliance of Democrats (AD).

From Party-hopping to Coalition-hopping:
“A luta continua, vitória é certa”

Besides party-hopping by individuals as already described, there is another type of hopping namely from one coalition to the other.
Under similar motives which have given birth to party hopping, coalition-hopping is ‘the new game in town’ since the advent of coalition politics in Lesotho. When the objectives cannot be achieved within one coalition, then coalition-hoppers move on to the next one.

For instance, in a twist of ironies, the LCD and the DC which were sworn enemies following the DC’s usurpation of power from the LCD in an ugly split in 2012, joined forces together and engineered the fall of the ABC led coalition government. The LCD’s decision to partner with the DC cost it dearly as some of its MPs split to form a new party, the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL), in 2014, in protest.
Besides the LCD having hopped from a coalition government led by the ABC to the one led by DC, smaller parties have also devised a way to hunt with the hunters and run with the hares.

In the previous coalition government, the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD), BCP, Basotho-Batho Democratic Party (BBDP), Lesotho People’s Party (LPC), Basotho Democratic National Party (BDNP), National Independence Party (NIP) and Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP) formed a loose alliance, called the bloc.

The bloc decided to support the ABC led coalition government from the outside by only voting with it in parliament against the DC which had been isolated as a punishment for its power grab in 2012, after splitting from the LCD.
When the ABC-led coalition government collapsed, five of these parties hopped to the new coalition government after they each secured one PR seat in parliament. However, they opted to be part of the cabinet, this time, and share the spoils in the allocation of Senatorial, Ambassadorial and other senior government positions under the Khokanyan’a Phiri coalition government, as the coalition refers to itself.

One consequence of the MMP system is that because it compensates smaller parties which without it would be wiped off the political landscape, it virtually makes these parties win elections by losing them.

Small parties—such as the ones which initially formed the bloc, and now form part of the Khokanyan’a Phiri coalition—have been turned into king-makers in Lesotho politics, despite the fact that they enjoy very little popular support. They make, or break, coalitions, as we saw in the ABC-led coalition and, now, with the DC-led one.

The foregoing sections show not only the fluidity of political parties in Lesotho but also how lightly politicians regard the needs and aspirations of the people. As indicated earlier, none of the splits was a result of politicians battling over ideas on how to develop the country.
The 2015 election campaigns which are, in actual fact, mere politicking events for the parties devoid of clear development goals, are a case in point.

Ruling and Opposition parties in Concert to Plunder State Resources

Lesotho provides public funds to political parties for campaigning purposes. The campaign funding is provided to parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties alike, albeit on set distribution criteria.
Proportionality to the number of votes obtained in previous elections is used for parliamentary parties while equal distribution is used for non-parliamentary parties.

A limitation of the party funding law is that its disclosure requirement does not go beyond election time. This means that parties and individuals can amass illicit funds during the period in-between elections.
The legal provision of party and campaign finance is one of the important aspects for which Lesotho has to be given credit. However, the campaign component of the provision has proven to be problematic.

Firstly, it is an incentive for proliferation of parties because party hoppers know that when they break away from their parties, they will have some funds (no matter how meagre) from the state towards the campaign activities of their new parties.
This is different from South Africa, for instance, where parties have to prove their worth through the ballot box first before they can access the public funds.

It has also been one of the sources of intra-party conflicts because although the law requires parties to account for the funds, adherence to this requirement by both the ruling and opposition parties is very low. The abuse of funds by party leaders coupled with the lack of financial accountability within these parties has often triggered tensions.

Both ruling and opposition parties’ leaders have been accused of misuse of state resources for personal gain. In a clear political motive, the DC led coalition used public funds to pay off M500 000 personal loans of all MPs of the 8th Parliament.
These MPs claimed that they did not foresee that the 8th Parliament would not last its full term and therefore this meant that they were no longer going to be earning an income to repay the loans. Opposition MPs never raised an objection to the government’s placing the burden of loan repayments on the tax payers.

They, instead, feigned innocence claiming that they have not asked for their loans to be written off. Many of these MPs were re-elected back to parliament after the February, 2015, elections and as things stand, they are now entitled to take new loans as members of the 9th Parliament.
In another case of the plunder of state resources, in 2006 the Executive took the decision to allow its members and other senior officials holding statutory positions to buy government vehicles under the Government of Lesotho Vehicle Scheme (Shale 2008:182).

The government sold three-year-old luxury vehicles for only 1 percent of their original value to the Executive and senior officials.
Ministers bought C-Class Mercedes-Benzes for as little as M3 000. Holders of statutory positions bought Toyota luxury cars for M1 700. Although, to their credit, opposition MPs voted against this move in parliament at the time, under the politics of poverty, Parliament is very weak while the Executive is too strong.

This fact is also noted in the 2010 APRM Country Report which states that the institutions that are supposed to exercise public financial accountability are dysfunctional. It adds that:

Accountability in the use of public fiancé, auditing, and reporting is grossly inadequate. In addition, although parliament officially allocates budgets and authorises expenditures, it is unable to oversee the expenditure of the executive and other arms of government (p. 231).

Members of Parliament are basically torn between competing principals, the party, on the one hand, and Parliament, on the other. The Executive in Lesotho has prevailed not once but many times over Parliament because of the patron-client relationship.
The latter is made up of people who owe their political existence to the former. Therefore, decisions by the executive to dish out patronage using state resources, without accounting to anyone, is a classical case in point.

In fact, one of the major problems facing Lesotho is too much concentration of power in the Prime Minister. Reflecting on the same problem in Britain, Graham Allen MP from Nottingham North, states that in the Westminster system:
. . . the prime ministership over many decades has evolved into an accidental presidency. The result is a dysfunctional democracy, in which power is over-concentrated, over-centralized and under-controlled. Our democracy is out of balance and dangerously short on popular consent and participation . . .

The Constitution of Lesotho clearly gives a lot of power to the Prime Minister, including the power to take any action without the consent of the King—which action will be deemed to have been taken by the King himself.
Admittedly, the Constitution also provides for the removal of the Prime Minister, through a motion of vote-of-no-confidence. But in a system where the Prime Minister is the most influential political figure over any given legislator, it is not easy for this to happen.

The over-concentration of power in the Prime Minister has definitely proven poisonous for Lesotho over the 50 years because the political elite have been engaged in a cut-throat contest to have such power. They have not been shy to use it albeit not for the benefit of the country. The current Prime Minister, Mosisili, has now been in power for 17 years, just 4 years shy of Leabua Jonathan’s record of 21 years.
Excessive power, combined with overstay in political office, have proven to be costly to Lesotho, as has been witnessed during the Leabua Jonathan (1965-1986) and now Pakalitha Mosisili (1999-date) eras.

Effect of Internal Functioning of Partieson Political Stability
Although regular multi-party elections have become a norm in Lesotho, the dearth of a normative framework for the internal functioning of parties has led to lack of intra-party democracy resulting in weak political parties.
As Veen (2007:12-13) reminds us, preponderance of weaker parties leads to a weaker party system. Conversely, a strong party system is an outcome of high quality, stable and proper functioning political parties.

Such quality is determined by a number of factors, including, but not limited to, the make-up of the parties; the strength of their internal cohesion and programmatic profile; the structure and efficiency of the organisation; the identification by all members with the party; their democratic structure from bottom to top, and from local to state level; and, their internal and external (the media and the public) communication skills.

Political parties in Lesotho are nowhere near this quality hence the political instability which has characterised the country since independence.
In conformity with Motlosa’s notion of “triple tragedy” of autocratic bureaucracy, oligarchic personality cult, and pork barrel politics, both the ruling and opposition party leaders are averse to intra-party democracy, including leadership alternation.

If they cannot hold on to power in their parties, they jump ship and form new parties. The following three incidents demonstrate further how the parties’ failure to master proper internal functioning has plunged the country into a political morass.
Firstly, the BNP split from the BCP in 1959 and its subsequent capture of power in 1970 led to serious tensions which have sadly defined the trajectory of inter-party relations for the past 50 years.

It is important to underscore that right from the beginning at independence, the governing party violently dealt with the opposition thus establishing the aggressor-defender syndrome in Lesotho’s inter-party relations. Makoa (2011:50) reminds us that, the armed forces remained loyal to the BNP even during the early years of the BCP rule after restoration of democracy, in 1993.

He cites a number of peace-threatening episodes, during that period such as the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) in-fighting in 1994 and the subsequent murder of the Deputy Prime Minister Selometsi Baholo by LDF.
Secondly, when the LCD split from the BCP in 1997, the country saw unprecedented protests which reached the climax after the LCD won the 1998 elections.

Convinced that the LCD had usurped power from the BCP illegally, the BCP and other opposition parties violently protested against the LCD victory and in no time the country was on the brink of a civil war had it not been for the SADC military intervention.
Thirdly, the 2006 ABC split shook the country’s stability yet again. The electoral gains by the newly formed ABC in the 2007 elections threatened the LCD, which in typical fashion of African ruling parties, unleashed the security agencies on the ABC and other opposition parties.
Curfews, enforced by the LDF, became the order of the day and democratic space for citizen participation was constricted and infringement on human rights became common in post 2007, as was the case after the aborted 1970 elections.

Thirdly, the advent of coalition politics has ushered in a myriad of challenges which have created political instability. As political elites compete for state power through coalitions, Lesotho has witnessed inter-party relations deteriorating to the lowest ebb; and relations between the security agencies, especially the army and the police, being defined along partisan lines and the respect of the rule of law being eroded at an alarming rate, thereby destabilising the political system.

Throughout Lesotho’s 50-year unstable political history, the youth and women have been on the receiving end, both in terms of political violence as well as lack of opportunities for employment, access to health and education.
Both the youth and women have been manipulated by the political elite for selfish interests and they are made to toe the party line with the false or real hope that the party leaders will remember them once they capture power.

Sadly and despite promises by parties since independence, the women are still side-lined just as they were under colonialism (Scully 2009:29).
This situation leads to the emergence of inequalities in society and, in most cases, women are the most affected.
The APRM Report (2010:32) notes that despite an attempt by the Lesotho Government to improve on the position of women by revising the laws and developing policies geared towards addressing gender equality, things remain the same largely because of patriarchal cultural practices which government is incapable of dealing with.

The continent’s return to multi-party political dispensation in the late 1980s and early 1990s came with a renewed promise that political parties would carry out democratic reforms which had hitherto been suppressed by single party regimes.
However, it has now come to pass that instead of becoming the harbinger of democratic ideals and pushing the envelope in search for the solutions to the challenges that face women and young people, political leaders in Africa, including in Lesotho, have not genuinely taken measures to empower men and women.

Without contradicting myself, it is important to state that Lesotho has in recent years has been praised for the inclusion of women in Parliament, cabinet and local councils. Yet, a closer look at the number of women who get into parliament through the FPTP is very low compared to those who come through a PR list.

At the local level, Lesotho has been rated higher in terms of women inclusion after it attained a 30 percent threshold on inclusion of women. In 2005, it had reserved one out of three polling divisions throughout the country for females, translating into 385 out of the 1272 electoral divisions (Shale 2005:11).

Political parties have, without fail, established women and youth leagues in their parties over the years but the lack of appropriate format for women and youth empowerment at all levels by the parties has only led to token inclusion in some decision making structures.
Young people, glorified as youth leaders from across different political parties, engage on radio stations in Lesotho, spewing political cacophony and character assassinating leaders of other parties instead of focussing on issues which affect young people and policies which they would like to see enacted for the empowerment of the youth.

This chapter has demonstrated that political parties in Lesotho have indubitably contributed to the country’s instability through their intra and inter party conflict and it makes the following conclusions.
Firstly, that one of the major problems facing Lesotho is a lack of quality political leadership. It invokes the notion of recycled leaders to illustrate this Achilles heel.

The chapter takes the diagnosis of the problem beyond the issue of personality cult politics and argues that, actually, the Lesotho problem has to be called what it is: politics of poverty.
The litany of party splits is a result of the politics of poverty as the political elites search for greener pastures, thereby causing a serious harm to the country more than they would care to admit.

Secondly, it is concluded that the advent of coalition politics has transformed the bi-polar conflict setting, between parties to a multi-polar and multi-layered conflict within individual parties and between coalition partners.
As a result of the elitist, opportunistic andavaricious tendencies, there are no sufficient mechanisms being put in place to deal with this type of conflict and to ensure normalisation of the party and political systems.

Thirdly, the chapter bemoans the fact that there is no meaningful empowerment of youth and women. It observes that the political elites’ agenda has simply been one of exploitation of the vulnerabilities of young people and women, ‘finish and klaar’ (period). The country can never be prosperous when the majority of its population, women and youth, experience violence and strategic political repression at the hands of political leaders.
Fourthly, and finally, it can safely be argued that Lesotho and Basotho have little to celebrate for the country’s attainment of a Golden Jubilee because the socio-economic challenges which faced the country 50 years ago continue unabated. The political elite have only succeeded to divide the people instead of binding them together and creating jobs and decent living conditions.



An open letter to President Hichilema



Your Excellency,

I am certain that you are wondering where and/or how I have the temerity to write to you directly, but a recent post you put on WhatsApp piqued my interest; your meeting with His Excellency the Prime Minister of Lesotho, and his delegation. The delegation came to introduce to you and your good office the candidate of the Government of Lesotho, for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Joshua Setipa.

Let me set off by stating that I have a friendship with Setipa, for over 50 years, so I may not be the best person to give an objective appraisal or opinion of him; this I will leave to the government.

Further to that, as a citizen of Lesotho, I may embellish the information that I would provide on Lesotho, thus I will as far as possible keep to information that is contained in books. This is not a research report, but more a simplified literature review of what I have read. I shall not quote them, or reference them, thus allowing others the space to research this matter further.

First, let me state my surprise at the alignment of time that I see; Commonwealth Day in 2024 is on the 11th March, the day we celebrate a life well lived, that of Morena Moshoeshoe.

Further to that, this year also starts the 200th anniversary of the move by Morena Moshoeshoe and his followers from Menkhoaneng to Thaba Bosiu. They arrived at Thaba Bosiu in winter, circa 1824.

Next year, 2025 will also be the 100th anniversary of the ‘plenary’ that saw the birth of this Commonwealth of Nations. A handover from the bi-centenary, to the centenary celebrations.

We are all aware that the Commonwealth was started at the Imperial Conference of 1926, but it had what I call a plenary in 1925; this happened in Maseru, Basutoland. It was held at the ‘secretariat’ building on Kingsway. The building was used as the Prime Ministers’ office after independence, more recently, and to date as the Ministry of Defence.

When King George came to visit Lesotho in 1948, to thank the country and her citizens for their participation in the Second World War, High street as it was then known, had its name changed to Kingsway.

At this plenary Britain called the ANZaC states, Australia, New Zeeland and Canada, together with South Africa. It had been only 13 years (1912) since the Basotho monarch had been asked to attend the formation of the South African National Native Conference (SANNC), whose aim was to preserve African land. The SANNC was the forerunner to the African National Congress (ANC).

With the formation of the Union of South Africa, the union wanted to engulf Bechuanaland (Botswana) Swaziland (eSwatini) and Basutoland (Lesotho). This had been unsuccessful.

Next they came up with the Native Land Act of 1913, to remove African land rights. So, the conference that brought about the birth of the SANNC was a pre-emptive response to this act; an attempt to keep African land rights and traditions intact.

I would like to point out that the founding document of the Imperial Conference that brought about the Commonwealth states that all member states are autonomous and not subordinate to another.

At the time of the plenary, Basutoland was subordinate to Britain. But in a masterstoke became what I believe to be one of the founders of the Commonwealth.

Despite her subordination, Basutoland had placed so strong an objection to the presence of a representative South Africa in Basutoland, that South Africa’s invitation had to be withdrawn, and South Africa did not attend. This was the first ‘anti-apartheid’ shot, made in the world; what is more important is that it was made by an African country.

No matter how one looks at it, she may not have been a ‘founding member state’, but Basutoland was part of the founding fabric of the Commonwealth.

One just has to imagine the anger of the South Africans and their government: Dr. D. F. Malan, the first Nationalist Prime Minister of South Africa, was a minister responsible for housing at that time.

Had Basutoland’s lead been followed, spatial apartheid might never have happened. The Commonwealth would take till the 1960’s, and the formal legalisation/legislation of apartheid to remove South Africa from within her fold. A matter that Basutoland saw as far back as the 1920’s.

As shown, at the conceptualisation of the Commonwealth Lesotho was not just there, but an active and formidable participant; though one has to look further to see her relationship with Great Britain/the United Kingdom.

Basutoland/Lesotho’s history is strange, to say the least. The first Europeans to arrive here in 1833, were French Missionaries. At this time Europe was embroiled in wars, which inevitably included the French and English.

But it is these same priests, most notably Casalis, who helped steer the country to Britain, and British protection. Casalis acted almost as a foreign secretary/minister of foreign affairs at that time.

The first treaty between Basutoland and England was the Napier Treaty of 1843, though it took till 1866 to solidify this treaty into a protected land.

The history of the cavalry in Lesotho, the only African cavalry south of the Sahara, is quite long. It starts in about 1825, when F. D. Ellenberger in his book ‘History of the Basutho’, states that Morena Moletsane had come across gun powder quite by mistake.

They had been raiding a missionary’s home and came across a strange powder, which they found useless, so they threw it into a fire, which ‘exploded’. Thus, to his people called European style housing, ‘Ntlo-ea-thunya’, a house that shoots. But after having his people ravaged/savaged by Mzilikazi, he sent his best warriors to work on Boer farms, and with their remuneration purchase arms and horses.

We are often told of a ‘battle of/at Berea’. My answer is that it was not a battle but a cattle raid. Its importance is not just in the battle, but in democracy. The British called Morena Moshoeshoe ‘paramount chief’, a first amongst the others. The time before Berea shows something slightly different.

As Casalis writes in ‘My life in Basutoland’, the British had demanded 10,000 head of cattle, for stock theft. A great ‘pitso’ was called and all eligible men, those who owned land, were called.

At the end of the pitso, after many votes, the citizens refused to give their cattle to pay the demand of the British. The significance herein is that there was a plebiscite, a vote. Morena Moshoeshoe lost the backing of the people and thus the vote; the British then attacked to ‘collect’ the cattle themselves.

Both Morena Moshoeshoe and Morena Moletsane were heavily involved in the ‘battle’ which was won by the strength of the Basutho cavalry. Looking forward to the gun wars, it was most fortuitous that Morena Moshoeshoe’s ally, Morena Moletsane would outlive him, till the end of the gun wars.

After annexation in 1866, in the mid 1870’s the British, citing distance and as such expense, ceded Basutoland to the Cape, which was what the Basotho had been fighting against for a long time; they wanted direct British rule. They wanted to be ruled by Mofumahali Queen Victoria.

The first, and most critical mistake that the Cape made was, not so much in attacking Morena Moorosi, accusing his son of cattle theft, but in beheading him.

So, when some years later they wanted to disarm the Basutho, and they found those of the south of Basutoland who knew of the beheading, reluctant to go with the plan. The Cape decided to go ahead with disarmament forcefully and met equal if not greater force.

The Basutho were better armed, more knowledgeable on the terrain and better supplied. Helped by his father’s long-standing ally, Morena Moletsane, Morena Lerotholi was able to field a well-armed strong cavalry, which inflict great pain to the Cape.

This led to the Cape defeat. Together with the number of other wars that the Cape was fighting, there was fight fatigue among her people.

So bad was it, that they did not come and collect their fallen troops; in Mafeteng there is a cemetery called ‘mabitla-a-makhooa’, or graves of the white men. The SA Military History Society has a ‘roll of honour’ for some of the dead, as not all were buried in Basutoland.

There are two significant outcomes of the war. In his book ‘The Mabille’s of Basutoland’, Edwin W. Smith states that there was a fact-finding mission to Basutoland by members of the Cape parliament, including Rhodes. Their conclusion was that the Basutho should be handed back to Britain for direct rule; which was the original wish of the Basutho.

As Whitehall was reluctant to take this role back, Basutoland spent a period of close to two years of self-rule. Thus it became the first African country (only?) to unshackle itself of colonial rule. And became the first African country to get the colonial rule it wanted; and re-shackled itself to Britain.

The second is how Britain agreed to go back and rule Basutoland. In his book, Rhodes Goes North, J. E. S. Green shows how the Prime Minister of the Cape went to Britain to sue for peace, and eventually agreed to give Britain 20 000 pounds per annum, of her import tax revenues to govern Basutoland.

Whilst not a founding member of the Commonwealth, Basutoland has carried her fair weight in the battle to save both the Commonwealth, and together the rest of the Commonwealth, the world at large.

Whilst SA will hype the losses during the maritime accident of the SS Mendi in the English Channel, Lesotho is less inclined to speak of the losses on the SS Erinpura. The Erinpura was sunk by German war planes in the Mediterranean Sea. Though I should say that, the prayer of the men on the Mendi would resound so well with those who lost their lives on the Erinpura.

When British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill said; never was so much owed by so many to so few, I am certain he was speaking not just of the people of the British Isles, but the broader community within the Commonwealth, that stood together at this time of international need.

But having heard Sir Winston, there is a special bond of Basutoland within, and with the Commonwealth, that I would like to highlight. Apart from the ANZaC countries and South Africa, there were no air squadrons from other Commonwealth countries that I am aware of; except for Basutoland that is.

They paid for 12 or so Spitfire aircraft that would form the 72nd Basutoland, which flew in the Battle of Britain. No moSotho actually flew (in?) them, but they had been financed by the Basotho.

For all the prowess of a moSotho man with arms, in his book ‘Basotho Soldiers in Hitler’s War’, Brian Gary not only writes about the gift of aircraft that fought in the Battle of Britain, he also shows that Basotho soldiers, who were hauling various ordinances through the Italian Alps, were allowed to carry arms.

Aircraft and carrying arms for an African in World War II; Lesotho is not just a pioneer member of the Commonwealth, but a beacon.

As Lesotho many of these pioneering attributes continued. Whist South Africa was banned from sports and entertainment, Lesotho filled the gap for her. Exiles like Hugh Masekela and Mirriam Makeba were hosted for sell out concerts in Lesotho. South African interracial sports, with matches between the likes of Orlando Pirate, Wits University, Kaiser Chiefs, to name those I remember, started in Maseru.

I have touched on politics and war, sport and entertainment; let me go to superstition. It would go against what is expected of me not to go without anything superstitious.

Britain has given the world three major sporting codes. Rugby, which is dominated by the big three of New Zeeland and South Africa. Cricket, which expands from the rugby three to include India, Pakistan, most of the Caribbean states and a few African counties.

These sports are obviously ‘Commonwealth Sports’, as they are dominated, or played predominantly by Commonwealth countries. They have also given us football. This is a truly global sport, the largest sport played across the world, on all types of surfaces, with all types of round looking objects. We can’t call all of these footballs.

The last time a Commonwealth country won the World Cup it was England in 1966; the year Lesotho gained her independence.

The next World Cup is in 2026, the millennium celebrations of the Commonwealth; who will head the Commonwealth then? Will a Commonwealth team have the necessary ‘juju’ to make it?

Your Excellency, this is but a brief note on Lesotho, and it is my way of using the words attributed to Morena Moshoeshoe, when asking for protection from Queen Victoria that say; take me, and all the lice (those that are symbiotic to me) in my blanket. I do hope that these words will be of use to you as seek consensus on Lesotho and her candidate for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth.

Yours truly

Khasane Ramolefe

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Culture quibbles



A few weeks ago these pages carried a substantial piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture”, written in the form of an open letter to the government of Lesotho. The first sentence of Mohapi’s article took me by surprise, as he stated: MPs and Senators’ primary role is to protect and preserve the traditions and culture of the Basotho people. I would have thought the primary role of MPs and Senators would be to ensure that Basotho are secure (being protected, for example, from criminals), that they have adequate access to social services such as education and healthcare, that the economy is sufficiently stable to offer citizens some chance of employment, and so on. Fat chance, you might scoff.

But then I realised that Mohapi had a more specific contention in mind, as he stated: The Laws of Lerotholi were set to protect social order, traditions and culture of Basotho. Mohapi’s immediate concern is with the 2024 Estates and Inheritance Bill, which proposes radical changes to the existing order of things. (See the article in last week’s thepost, “MPs bulldoze through Inheritance Bill”, which gives a good idea of the background).

I’m aware that this Bill has provoked considerable controversy, and that is not my topic in this article. Nor do I wish to contest what Mohapi was saying in his piece — this is by no means a case of Dunton v Mohapi. But I did take note of the way the phrase “traditions and culture” kept resounding in Mohapi’s article, rather like a cracked bell, and what I want to do is open up those terms for examination.

Please bear with me as I slip aside for a moment with a little academic stuff. Back in 2006 I published an article titled “Problematizing Keywords: Culture, tradition and modernity.” For those of my readers with a scholarly bent and who might want to hunt it down, this was published in a journal called Boleswa Occasional Papers in Theology and Religion 2:3 (2006), pages 5-11. There I made a number of points I want to bring up in what follows.

The first fallacy I tackled in that article was the tradition/modernity binary — the notion that in Africa there was tradition and then, wham!, the white man arrived and there was modernity. Are we seriously to believe there were no great cities in Africa before the white man landed, that the peoples of a whole continent lived entirely in villages? Nigeria tells a different story.

Are we to believe there were no great libraries? Mali and Ethiopia tell a different tale. No writing systems? No medicine? I’m not saying that if I’m in pain I don’t prefer a dose of oramorph to an infusion made from some leaves picked off the slopes of Thaba Bosiu, but the point remains: the tradition/modernity binary is crude and crass and it’s demeaning about Africa.

We cannot get very far with simplistic ideas about where we are coming from and where we are at. And yet of course we do come from a past. I’ll quote — or, rather, paraphrase from memory, as I don’t have the work to hand — an observation made by T.S Eliot in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: We know so much more than those who came before us. But they are a large part of what we know.

But of those who came before who is it, exactly, that we know? When Mohapi repeatedly uses the phrase “the traditions and culture of the Basotho people” I take it he is thinking of the Basotho as constituted under Moshoeshoe I and the descendants of those generations.

For how much do we know about the “traditions and culture” of the various Sotho-speaking groups let’s say two hundred years before Moshoeshoe gathered them together to form the modern Lesotho state? Isn’t it likely there were significant differences between the “traditions and culture” of these groups, differences that were later rationalised or homogenised?

Two points here. First, we mustn’t forget what an extraordinary innovator Moshoeshoe was —and I guess that might be said also of Lerotholi, whose laws are the chief focus of Mohapi’s article. Second, culture is not static, it is not immutable. It evolves all the time.

For example, for how long has it been the case that adherence to the Christian faith could be said to be part of the culture of Basotho? (Or, for how long has football been part of the culture of the English? We are credited with the invention of football, but that doesn’t mean it’s been part of who we are since time immemorial).

That brings me to my next point, or a string of points, moving from England back to Lesotho. When I was a schoolboy I bought myself a copy of the book Components of the National Culture (1968) by the great British Marxist Perry Anderson. One of my schoolmasters — one of the few who didn’t like me — caught me with it and said “just the sort of book I’d expect a troublemaker like you to be reading. Just don’t show it to anyone else!”

The significant term in Anderson’s title is “components.” Culture is put together — it is an assemblage — and its components may have different sources.
That leads me on to the invention of tradition, and an example for Basotho.

I guess all my readers know Qiloane, the sandstone pillar at Thaba Bosiu the distinctive peak of which is said to be the inspiration for the shape of the traditional Basotho straw hat. Well, that notion is dubious to say the least; there were hats of the same shape from elsewhere in the region long before the Basotho got hold of the design.

Does this really matter? Well, no, because even if a tradition is invented, it still has the persuasiveness of a tradition. It’s just that knowing this might dissuade us from making big claims about the unchangeable nature and sanctity of tradition.

And the same goes for culture. I leave you with a quotation from the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (it’s from his terrific book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers): We do not need, have never needed, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron.

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

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The Joker Returns: Conclusion



Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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