The Early Days
Lesotho is the homeland of the Basotho – Sotho-Tswana peoples who originally lived in small chiefdoms scattered around the highveld in present-day Free State.
During the 19th century, the Voortrekkers and various other white entrepreneurs began to encroach on Basotho grazing lands. On top of this came the difaqane (forced migration in Southern Africa).
Yet the Basotho emerged from this period more united – largely due to Moshoeshoe the Great, a village chief who rallied his people and forged a powerful kingdom. Moshoeshoe first led his own villagers to Butha-Buthe, from where he was able to resist the early incursions of the difaqane. He later moved his headquarters to the more easily defended mountain stronghold of Thaba-Bosiu, where he repulsed wave after wave of invaders.
Over the following decades, Moshoeshoe brought various peoples together as part of the loosely federated Basotho state; by the time of his death in 1870, it would have a population exceeding 150,000. He also welcomed Christian missionaries into his territory. In return for some Christianisation of Basotho customs, the missionaries were disposed to defend the rights of ‘their’ Basotho against Boer and British expansion.
Defending the Territory
In 1843 – in response to continuing Boer incursions – Moshoeshoe allied himself with the British Cape Colony government. While the resulting treaties defined his borders, they did little to stop squabbles with the Boers, who had established themselves in the fertile lowveld west of the Mohokare (Caledon) River. In 1858 tensions peaked with the outbreak of the Orange Free State–Basotho War. Moshoeshoe was ultimately forced to sign away much of his western lowlands.
In 1868 Moshoeshoe again called on the British, this time bypassing the Cape Colony administration and heading straight to the imperial government in London. The British viewed continual war between Orange Free State and Basotholand as bad for their own interests. To resolve the situation, they annexed Basotholand.
The decade after Moshoeshoe’s death was marked by squabbles over succession. After briefly changing hands from the British imperial government to the Cape Colony, Basotholand again came under direct British control in 1884. When the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, Basotholand was a British protectorate and was not included. Had the Cape Colony retained control, Lesotho would have become part of South Africa and, later, an apartheid-era homeland.
During the early 20th century, migrant labour to South Africa increased and the Basotho gained greater autonomy under British administration. In 1955 the council requested internal self-government, with elections to determine its members. Meanwhile, political parties formed: the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP; similar to South Africa’s African National Congress) and the conservative Basotholand National Party (BNP), headed by Chief Leabua Jonathan.
The BNP won Lesotho’s first general elections in 1965 and made independence from Britain the first item on its agenda. The following year, the Kingdom of Lesotho attained full independence, with Chief Jonathan as prime minister and King Moshoeshoe II as nominal head of state.
Chief Jonathan’s rule was unpopular and the BCP won the 1970 election. In response, Jonathan suspended the constitution, arrested and expelled the king, and banned opposition parties. Lesotho effectively became a one-party state.
A military coup deposed Chief Jonathan in 1986 and restored Moshoeshoe II as head of state. Yet, following ongoing power disputes between the king and coup leader Justin Lekhanya, Moshoeshoe II was deposed and exiled in 1990. His son, Letsie III, assumed the throne, with only ceremonial powers, in 1992.
The '90s were a decade of unrest. A BCP split led prime minister Ntsu Mokhehle to form the breakaway Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and continue to govern, with the BCP now in opposition. Mokhehle died in 1998 and Pakalitha Mosisili took over the leadership of the LCD. The party subsequently won a landslide victory in elections that were declared reasonably fair by international observers but were widely protested against within Lesotho.
In September 1998 the government called on its Southern African Development Community (SADC) treaty partners – Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe – to help it restore order. Rebel elements of the Lesotho army resisted, resulting in heavy fighting and widespread looting in Maseru. The LCD won again in the 2002 elections, but opposition parties gained a significant number of seats.
In 2006, 17 LCD members led by Thomas Thabane, formed the breakaway All Basotho Convention (ABC) party. In the controversial 2007 elections, the LCD retained its majority and national strikes against the government ensued. A two-week curfew was imposed, there was an assassination attempt on Thabane and many people were detained and tortured. In 2009 there was an assassination attempt on Mosisili.
In the hotly contested 2012 elections, Thabane became prime minister after the ABC formed a coalition with other parties including the LCD. Lesotho teetered on the verge of another coup in 2014, when Thabane fled to South Africa, accusing the military of trying to overthrow him. Following SADC mediation, general elections took place in February 2015. Thabane’s ABC lost narrowly and a coalition government of seven parties was headed by Mosisili's new party, the Democratic Congress. Mosisili is once again prime minister, with Mothetjoa Metsing of the LCD remaining deputy prime minister.