Neighbouring South Africa has always cast a long shadow over Lesotho, fuelling a perpetual struggle for a separate identity on an ever-diminishing patch of territory.
The first inhabitants of the mountainous region that makes up present-day Lesotho were the hunter–gatherer people known as the Khoisan. They have left many examples of their rock art in the river valleys. Lesotho was settled by the Sotho peoples in the 16th century.
King Moshoeshoe (pronounced ‘mo-shwe-shwe’ or ‘moshesh’) is the father figure of Lesotho’s history. He began life as a local chief of a small village. Around 1820 he led his villagers to Butha-Buthe, a mountain stronghold, where they survived the first battles of the difaqane (forced migration), caused by the violent expansion of the nearby Zulu state. The loosely organised southern Sotho society managed to survive due largely to the adept political and diplomatic abilities of the king. In 1824 Moshoeshoe moved his people to Thaba-Bosiu, a mountaintop that was even easier to defend.
From Thaba-Bosiu, Moshoeshoe played a patient game of placating the stronger local rulers and granting protection, as well as land and cattle, to refugees. These people and others like them were to form Basutholand; at the time of Moshoeshoe’s death in 1870, it had a population of more than 150, 000.
As the difaqane receded a new threat arose. The Voortrekkers (Boer pioneers) had crossed the Senqu (Orange) River in the 1830s and established the Orange Free State. By 1843 Moshoeshoe was sufficiently concerned by their numbers to ally himself with the British Cape Colony government. The British Resident in Basutholand decided that Moshoeshoe was becoming too powerful and engineered an unsuccessful attack on his kingdom.
Treaties with the British helped define the borders of Basutholand but did little to stop squabbles with the Boers. The Boers pressed their claims on the land and increasing tension led to wars between the Orange Free State and the Basotho people in 1858 and 1865. Though he achieved success in the first war, Moshoeshoe was forced in the second to sign away much of his western lowlands.
The continual war between the Orange Free State and Basutholand was not good for British interests, and in 1868 the British government annexed Basutholand and handed it to the Cape Colony to run in 1871. After a period of instability, the British government again took direct control of Basutholand in 1884, although it remained easier to give effective authority to local leaders than rule through British officers.
Lesotho’s existence is attributable to a quirk of history and fortuitous timing. In the 1880s, direct British rule was deeply resented by the local population as an infringement on Basutholand’s freedom and sovereignty. Little were they to know that British occupation would secure the future independence of Lesotho as other kingdoms fell under the South African umbrella. All because at the precise moment when the Union of South Africa was created, Basutholand was a British Protectorate and was not included in the Union.
In 1910 the advisory Basutholand National Council was formed from members nominated by the chiefs. In the mid-1950s the council requested internal self-government from the British; by 1960 a new constitution was in place and elections were held for a legislative council. The main contenders were the Basutholand Congress Party (BCP), similar to South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), and the conservative Basutholand National Party (BNP) headed by Chief Leabua Jonathan.
The BCP won the 1960 elections and demanded full independence from Britain. This was eventually agreed to; independence came into effect in 1966. However, at the elections in 1965 the BCP lost to the BNP and Chief Jonathan became the first prime minister of the new Kingdom of Lesotho which allied itself with the apartheid regime across the border.
Stripping King Moshoeshoe II of the few powers that the new constitution had left him did not endear Jonathan’s government to the people and the BCP won the 1970 election. After his defeat, Jonathan followed the example of many bad losers in African history by suspending the constitution, expelling the king and banning all opposition political parties. Jonathan changed tack, distancing himself from South Africa and calling for the return of land in the Orange Free State that had been stolen from the original Basutholand. He also offered refuge to ANC guerrillas and flirted with Cuba. South Africa closed Lesotho’s borders, strangling the country.
Jonathan was deposed in 1986 and the king was restored as head of state. This was a popular move, but eventually agitation for democratic reform rose again. In 1990 King Moshoeshoe II was deposed by the army in favour of his son, Prince Mohato Bereng Seeisa (Letsie III). Elections in 1993 resulted in the return of the BCP.
In 1995 Letsie III abdicated in favour of his father. Five years after being deposed, Moshoeshoe II was reinstated, restoring calm to Lesotho after a year of unrest. Less than a year later he was killed when his 4WD plunged over a cliff in the Maluti Mountains. Letsie III became king for the second time.
A split in the BCP saw the breakaway Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) take power. Elections were held in 1998 amid accusations of widespread cheating by the LCD, which won by a landslide. Tensions between the public service and the government became acute, and the military was also split over the result.
Following months of protests, the government appeared to be losing control. In late September 1998 it called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) treaty partners, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, to help restore order. Troops, mainly South African, invaded the kingdom. Rebel elements of the Lesotho army put up strong resistance and there was heavy fighting in Maseru.
The government agreed to call new elections, but the political situation remained tense with the spectre of South African intervention never far away. Political wrangling delayed the elections until May 2002. The LCD won again and Prime Minister Mosisili began a second – and peaceful – five-year term.