With elections just over two weeks away, Lesotho’s politicians jostle for position, tensions increase and South Africa’s mediation intensifies.
At just over 2 million people, Lesotho’s population is one twenty-fifth the size of South Africa’s. Lesotho’s GDP of $2.3 billion represents 0.66% of it’s neighbour’s $350 billion.
Despite this lack of girth and economic punch, in the past six months Lesotho (or more precisely, its politicians) have constituted a disproportionately large headache for South Africa.
When divisions within the ruling coalition reached crisis point last year, the army entered the streets of Maseru on in an attempt to unseat prime minister Tom Thabane.
Thabane, who has led a three party coalition since his election in 2012, fled to safety in South Africa, while one police officer was shot dead and radio broadcasts were briefly suspended.
Thabane asked for help and received it in the form of SADC mediation spearheaded by South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Thabane was also granted physical protection from a unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Earlier attempts at SADC mediation had failed because of a string of broken promises. Renowned for his negotiating nous, Ramaphosa finally managed to get all parties to agree Thabane would remain on as prime minister while parliament would be opened briefly so that early elections could be called in February 2015.
Since then, Lesotho has existed in tense political limbo. So far, and through intensive diplomatic efforts during over ten visits to Lesotho, Ramaphosa has managed to hold warring factions together.
Lately, however, the agreement has been fraying at the edges, and two of the three coalition parties now seem unhappy with the way Ramaphosa has approached his work.
In a report delivered at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in late January, the Lesotho government (or at least the ABC and BNP faction of the coalition) criticised Ramaphosa’s mediation, claiming he has not acted impartially.
The report accuses Ramaphosa of allowing Lt. Gen Kamoli (the army officer allied to the DC that most hold responsible for leading the coup attempt) to remain in SA and thus still be in close contact with Lesotho’s army generals. Meanwhile, two other officers allied to Thabane – Police Commissioner Tšooana and Lt. Gen Mahao – have been banished further afield, to Algeria and South Sudan respectively.
The report also alleges that Ramaphosa did nothing to force communications minister Seliber Mochoroboane to vacate his post after Thabane fired him for corruption in October 2014. Mothetjoa Metsing, deputy prime minister and leader of the LCD party had rejected Thabane’s decision to fire Mochoroboane, leading to weeks of acrimonious allegations and court battles.
The LCD has distanced itself from the government’s report to the AU and seems more inclined to agree with Ramaphosa’s style of mediation. This situation has led some to speculate that the South African government might prefer a return to power of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili, with whom Metsing governed before the LCD and DC split prior to the 2012 elections.
Earlier this week, the three coalition leaders met with South African president Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa and other government ministers. The statement released following the meeting confirmed ‘the climate for the holding of elections on 28 February remains on course.’ The meeting was called against a backdrop of heightened security fears after the arrest of four Basotho soldiers who allegedly attempted to murder two of Thabane’s bodyguards on South African soil.
According to the statement, Zuma has urged his deputy to return to Lesotho as soon as possible to help deal with security and political issues still threatening to derail plans for the February 28th polls.
It is clear that despite Lesotho’s small political and economic weight in the region South Africa has a strong interest in the return of political stability there.
First, and most importantly, South Africa – Gauteng in particular – depends heavily on stable water supplies from Lesotho. As load shedding becomes a daily reality for the majority of South Africans, the last thing that Zuma and Ramaphosa need is a water crisis (although according to a recent Mail & Guardian expose, that water crisis may be coming anyway).
Second, South Africa encircles Lesotho, meaning that any violent conflict or deteriorating humanitarian situation would automatically impact upon it economically and politically. With more than enough unemployment and poverty of its own, South Africa will be loathe to incur further costs to pay for a troop deployment in Lesotho (as in 1998) or to receive a larger flow of economic migrants.
It is no surprise then that Ramaphosa appears determined to succeed.
However he and SADC have been criticised for assuming that fresh elections alone will untangle the political mess in Lesotho. Critics assert that political instability in Lesotho is likely to persist beyond the elections and that fundamental constitutional questions remain unaddressed.
Either way, elections are likely to go ahead on 28th February and a new Mosisili-Metsing government could be the likely outcome. Tensions are high and sources within the country say that the politically partisan media (particularly radio stations) are not helping. While widespread violence is unlikely, other outcomes – disputed elections, sporadic violence targeting rallies or a protracted political standoff – are very real possibilities.
Even if elections are peaceful, free and fair, Ramaphosa and SADC are likely to have more work to do to make sure that Lesotho becomes politically stable in the medium to long term.