South Africa invades Lesotho

October 7, 1998

Picture By Norm Dixon

As South Africans awoke on September 22 and tuned their radios to the morning news, they could be forgiven for thinking they had entered a time-warp. The acting president, they heard, had ordered a force of 600-800 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops, led by white officers, to storm into their country's tiny independent neighbour, Lesotho, to prop up a tottering and discredited government.

The hint that this military aggression was taking place in 1998, and not 1982, was the fact that the order to invade was given by Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi — the arch-reactionary and apartheid collaborator who is now South Africa's third in command after Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Welcome to the "new" South Africa!

The invasion was South Africa's first post-apartheid military adventure. Its results were much bloodier than the apartheid regime's notorious 1982 commando raid on the Lesotho capital, Maseru, in which 42 people were massacred, including 30 African National Congress members.

At least 113 people — unconfirmed figures put the death toll as high as 134 — were killed in the first three days of the assault, at least 50 on the first day. Most of the dead were members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). At least 47 civilians were killed.

The SANDF has admitted to only nine of its soldiers being killed, despite persistent reports that 10 died in a single fire-fight in the first hours of the invasion.

On September 23, some 200 troops from Botswana joined the invasion to take control of Maseru, allowing SANDF troops to concentrate on defeating fierce resistance from LDF troops defending military bases and other strategic installations. These included the Katse and Mohale dams, part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

Surprised at the strength of the Lesotho soldiers' resistance, the commander of the operation, Colonel Robbie Hartslief, ordered his troops to shoot to kill (Hartslief's previous war record includes leading battles during the apartheid regime's bloody 1987 invasion of Angola).

On September 28, South Africa was forced to sent 450 reinforcements. Botswana boosted its force by 120.

Maseru, the country's main commercial centre, has been destroyed. The economy has been devastated. Damage in the main town is estimated at US$10 million.

Saving an autocracy

The ANC-led government claimed its action was in response to a request from the "democratically elected" Lesotho prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), currently chaired by South Africa.

Pretoria claimed that Lesotho was on the brink of a coup and that the invasion was necessary to prevent "anarchy" and restore "a stable environment for law and order". With as many as 2000 heavily armed LDF troops now taking refuge in the rugged mountains, from where they can continue a guerilla war, that may not be achieved for some time.

Many ordinary Basotho saw the invasion as a crude move by South Africa to save an unpopular, autocratic government, and to defend Pretoria's political and economic dominance of the tiny country.

Angry youth and women taunted the invaders, yelling "go home" and denouncing them as "aggressors". They brazenly erected roadblocks to slow the SANDF's armoured cars. South African-owned businesses were targeted for looting. Cars with South African number plates were stoned and white journalists had to prove they were not South African to escape a beating.

The unexpected vehemence of the resistance is explained by the fact that the LDF, which days before was hopelessly split between anti-government mutineers and loyalists, united to fight for their country's independence.

Molapo Qhobela, leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Basotho Congress Party, told the September 24 Weekly Mail and Guardian: "We had our problems, but when South Africa says we were 'hours from a military coup', it was lying like a cheap watch." Qhobela said Pretoria "was looking for an excuse to flex its military muscle and say 'I am the biggest in the region'."

Similar sentiments were echoed by ordinary Basotho. "The South Africans want Lesotho to be their 10th province. Perhaps there are minerals here which we don't know about", a technical college student quipped.

Lesotho had been paralysed by months of escalating anti-government and pro-democracy protests and strikes. In February, Lesotho police opened fire on 2800 striking women textile workers, killing four. Mosisili, police minister at the time, refused to resign.

Anti-government protests

General elections on May 23 resulted in a landslide victory for Mosisili's ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which won a seemingly impossible 79 of the 80 seats.

Opposition parties denounced the result as rigged. While the opposition parties differ little in terms of brutality, corruption and dishonesty, evidence emerged to back their charges.

The voters' roll contained thousands of dubious registrations, suggesting the possibility of massive multiple voting. Following the elections, thousands of blank ballot papers — the numbers of which were supposedly strictly controlled by the Independent Electoral Commission — were found dumped, so ballot box stuffing could not be ruled out.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, SADC observers declared the election "free and fair".

In early August, large crowds began to camp in the grounds of the royal palace in Maseru to petition King Letsie III to order new elections.

On August 6, police used water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of protesters who had blockaded parliament, trapping Mosisili and government MPs inside. On August 12, protesters at the palace were attacked with tear gas. On August 17, police opened fire on protesters, killing two and wounding 30.

The disaffection spread to the armed forces. On September 3, pro-government Lesotho police and anti-government soldiers battled each other; a civilian bystander was killed in the cross-fire.

On September 11, LDF top brass sacked a colonel who countermanded an order for troops to disperse the protesters at the palace, with deadly force if needed. This provoked a mutiny by junior officers, who forced the sacking of 28 senior LDF officers and the resignation of the head of the army, Lieutenant General Makhula Mosakeng.

The mutineers remained loyal to the king, the constitutional head of state, who was increasingly seen to be sympathetic to the anti-government protesters.

Most of the deposed officers fled to South Africa. The Weekly Mail and Guardian reported on September 18 that, "an official in the [South African] Department of Foreign affairs confirmed that South Africa had received pleas for assistance from 'between 13 and 15' Lesotho citizens. 'A number of them are soldiers of various ranks', the official said."

In an attempt to defuse the crisis, the Lesotho government on August 10 agreed to a South African proposal that a SADC committee investigate charges of election irregularities. The committee's report, released on September 17, found "apparent irregularities and discrepancies" in the conduct of the poll, but did not recommend new elections.

An article in the September 25 Weekly Mail and Guardian revealed that the final report differed substantially from a version leaked earlier, which contained "potentially explosive revelations" about the conduct of the poll. The newspaper suggested that the final report was "rewritten" on the orders of SADC leaders to salvage the Mosisili government.


Lesotho has population of 2 million and is completely surrounded by South Africa. Despite paying lip service to its formal independence, South Africa has always treated Lesotho as a neo-colony and a source of cheap, expendable labour. (During apartheid, Basotho mineworkers were regularly deported if they went on strike or joined a union. Today, as in the past, more than 100 Basotho die every year in South Africa's mines.)

Between a third and a half the country's adult male population works in South Africa's mines, generating about 75% of Lesotho's gross domestic product, and untold millions in profits for South Africa's giant mining companies. South African business interests dominate the Lesotho economy. Under apartheid, South Africa used its economic and military muscle to make or break its governments.

In recent years, the SADC — dominated by South Africa since the demise of apartheid (the South African economy is three times bigger than the economies of all other SADC countries combined) — has had another reason to want a pliant regime in Lesotho: the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

This US$8 billion, four-phase mega-dam project is jointly funded by South African capital and the World Bank. It is one of the largest infrastructure developments in the world and construction is to begin soon on the scheme's second phase.

The LHWP was dreamed up by the apartheid regime in 1986, and accepted by Lesotho's military regime recently installed by Pretoria.

The aim of the project was to pump massive amounts of water to South Africa to meet its agricultural and industrial needs. South Africa consumes 80% of southern Africa's water, yet has just 10% of its water sources. Studies have shown that without new sources of water, South Africa's fresh water resources would be fully used up by between 2025 and 2030.

Both Botswana and Namibia would benefit from the project. Lesotho, on the other hand, would be compelled to pump water to South Africa even in times of drought.

South Africa's main left organisation, the South African Communist Party, remained silent until October 1. In a statement, the SACP said that while widespread criticism of the invasion "reflects a healthy and broad-based South African distaste for military actions beyond our borders", the condemnation "has generally been grossly unfair and one-sided. With the blame being thrown at the SANDF and the SA government, the main culprits for the crisis in Lesotho have been getting off too lightly.

"In the judgement of the SACP, the burden of culpability must lie, in the first instance, with the Lesotho political elite."

The SACP said that, despite "some serious clumsiness" by the SANDF, "the SANDF troops are now a factor for stability, and their continued presence in Lesotho for the present must be supported".

The SACP said that new elections must be held in Lesotho.

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