Lesotho: the mountain kingdom

Jade Fell

Following a turbulent history of physical conflicts and military coups, last year’s elections were among the first to pass without violence erupting in the streets, ushering in a period of political calm for Lesotho 

The mountains of Lesotho have been central to the country’s history and to the Basotho people who inhabit the country. 

The Basotho emerged as a nation during the reign of King Moshoeshoe in the early 19th century, following one of the darkest points in the country’s history, known as the ‘Lifaqane’ period. Conflicts among the Nguni people in Natal, the rising military dictatorship of Zulu King Shaka kaSenzangakhona and the competition resulting from a severe drought in the Natal region were all factors contributing to this phase in Lesotho’s history. 

The widespread devastation prompted the Basotho to take refuge up in the mountains as a defence strategy against marauding groups and the Zulu armies. In July 1824 Moshoeshoe and the Basotho people took occupation of a small flat-topped mountain situated in the valley of the Phuthiatsana River. The mountain Thaba Bosiu, meaning ‘mountain of the night’, proved to be an impenetrable fortress, in part due to the Zulu armies’ belief that the mountain grew larger at night time, making attacks particularly dangerous. 

As Moshoeshoe’s power and influence developed, the refugees and remnants of clans shattered by the Lifaqane period slowly emerged as the Basotho nation that exists today. 

But things have not been easy for the Basotho people since the formation of the nation on top of Thaba Bosiu almost 200 years ago. The decades that followed brought with them years of relentless torment, from the arrival of Dutch-speaking missionaries in the late 1820s and white settlers from the Cape Colony in the 1830s, to the Basotho Wars of the 1860s. Lesotho’s turbulent years continued up until the country came under British Protection in the late 19th century. 

Lesotho won independence from Britain in 1966, but the country has continued to struggle politically, facing multiple military coups. Most recently, in 1998, post-election disputes led to rioting and brought about military intervention by South Africa and Botswana, following the appointment of Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader Bethuel Pakalitha Mosisili in fiercely contested elections. The disputes were a catalyst for the introduction of proportional representation, which soon followed. 

In October 2006, a minister in the LCD government, Motsoahae Thomas Thabane, resigned to form a new political party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC). One independent and 16 LCD MPs joined Thabane in this new formation, making the ABC the third largest political party in Lesotho. In the elections of the following year, Mosisili and the ruling LCD were returned to power. 

Early in 2012, Mosisili and 44 other LCD MPs left the ruling party to form the Democratic Congress party. In a general election held in May 2012, the ABC, the LCD and the Basotho National Party (BNP) united to form a coalition against the Democratic Congress, with the ballot resulting in the peaceful election of Thabane as Prime Minister, ending Mosisili’s 14 years in power. 

Almost 50 years after Lesotho gained independence from the British in 1966, the mountains are just as important to the Basotho and the country may finally be entering a period of relative calm. 

In the new Prime Minister’s inaugural speech in June 2012, Thabane promised to give a voice to the Basotho people, stating: “The wishes and aspirations of my people will always take precedence over my own.” He added: “We must build on the achievements that we have already made to further consolidate peace and stability in our country and to deepen the roots of democracy and good governance.” 

The nation’s motto is Khotso, Pula, Nala, which means ‘Peace, rain, prosperity’. While the weather may be beyond its control, peace, and possibly prosperity, are within Lesotho’s grasp if the current political stability continues to endure.


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