In 2017, a general election brought Prime Minister Thomas Thabane back to power, and his All Basotho Convention party was set to form a coalition government. Although hopes were high that this peaceful transfer of power might usher in a new era, a few days after the election Thabane's estranged wife was shot dead. A few months later, the country's army commander was assassinated and two senior military officers were also killed. Fears of yet another coup were sparked, some senior politicians fled and tensions remained high for the rest of the year.
The Basotho-dominated country did not experience apartheid and, with life revolving around subsistence farming, levels of social inequality and crime are lower than in South Africa. The mountain kingdom does face serious issues though, including unemployment, food shortages and a devastating HIV epidemic – in 2017, the new infection rate was the world's highest.
The Basotho Blanket
The Basotho blanket is an important part of public, social and private life, not only as a practical article of clothing but also as a symbol of wealth. In 1860, when European traders presented King Moshoeshoe I with a blanket, the Basotho people were so taken with it that blankets superseded animal hides. By the 1880s, traders were overwhelmed with demand for blankets, which were manufactured from high-quality woven cloth in England.
Today's woollen blanket provides insulation in the heat and the cold, is fireproof and acts as a status symbol (each costs a hefty M500). Look out for a maize cob (a symbol of fertility), a crown or military markings (a legacy of British imperialism) and a cabbage leaf (meaning prosperity). Young married women wear a blanket around their hips until their first child is conceived; and young boys are presented with a blanket upon circumcision, symbolising their emergence into manhood.
The solid lines on a blanket’s edges are worn vertically; the Basotho believe that worn horizontally the blanket can stunt growth, wealth and development.
Less common, but still used in rural areas, is the Basotho hat (mokorotlo or molianyeo), with its distinctive conical shape and curious top adornment. The hat is supposedly modelled on the shape of Qiloane Hill, near Thaba-Bosiu.
Traditional Basotho culture is flourishing, and colourful celebrations marking milestones, such as birth, puberty, marriage and death, are a central part of village life. While hiking you may see the lekolulo, a flutelike instrument played by herd boys; the thomo, a stringed instrument played by women; and the setolo-tolo, a stringed mouth instrument played by men. Cattle hold an important position in daily life, both as sacrificial animals and as symbols of wealth.
The Basotho believe in a Supreme Being and place a great deal of emphasis on balimo (ancestors), who act as intermediaries between people and the capricious forces of nature and the spirit world. Evil is a constant danger, caused by boloi (witchcraft; witches can be either male or female) and thkolosi (small, mischievous beings, similar to the Xhosa’s tokoloshe). If these forces are bothering you, visit the nearest ngaka (a learned man, part sorcerer and part doctor) who can combat them. Basotho are traditionally buried in a sitting position, facing the rising sun and ready to leap up when called.
The Drakensberg range is at its most rugged in tiny Lesotho – a 30,355-sq-km patch of mountain peaks and highland plateau that is completely surrounded by South Africa. It has the highest lowest point of any country in the world – 1400m, in southern Lesotho’s Senqu (Orange) River valley.
Due primarily to its altitude, Lesotho is home to fewer animals than much of the rest of the region. Those you may encounter include rheboks, jackals, mongooses, meerkats, elands and rock hyraxes. However, Lesotho’s montane areas are of particular interest for their rare smaller species. Many are found only in the Drakensberg, including the highly threatened Maloti minnow, the African ice rat, several species of lizards and geckos, and the Lesotho river frog.
The country’s almost 300 recorded bird species include the lammergeier (bearded vulture) and the southern bald ibis.
Among Lesotho’s earliest wild inhabitants were dinosaurs: the small, fast-running Lesothosaurus was named after the country.
National Parks & Protected Areas
In part because land tenure allows communal access to natural resources, less than 1% of Lesotho is protected – the lowest protected-area coverage of any nation in Africa. Sehlabathebe National Park is the main conservation area, known for its isolated wilderness. Other protected areas include Ts’ehlanyane National Park and Bokong Nature Reserve.
Climate change is becoming a problem for Lesotho, a country highly vulnerable to flood and drought, and now threatens the nation's food security, water supply and biodiversity. Other main issues include animal population pressure (resulting in overgrazing) and soil erosion. About 40 million tonnes of topsoil are lost annually, with a sobering prediction from the Ministry of Natural Resources that there may well be no cultivatable land left by 2040.
On a brighter note, Lesotho and South Africa are working together within the framework of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation and Development Project to protect these two alpine areas.
In addition, the once-controversial Highlands Water Project, which activists feared might disrupt traditional communities, flood agricultural lands and adversely impact the Senqu (Orange) River, is now regarded by the government as a success.
People & Culture
People & Economy
Lesotho’s main link with South Africa has been the mining industry. For most of the 20th century, Lesotho’s main export was labour, with about 60% of males working in South Africa, primarily in mining. In the early 1990s, at least 120,000 Basotho men were employed by South African mines and up to one-third of Lesotho’s household income was from wages earned by the miners. When the mining industry was restructured, the number of Lesotho miners was halved and many have returned home to Lesotho to join the ranks of the unemployed.
Chinese-owned textile factories subsequently became the country's major employer, with 36,000 Basotho working inside them. In recent years, the US economic slowdown and increased competition from countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh have taken their toll, while the diamond mining industry has grown, constituting as much as 8.5% of the nation's GDP.
Basotho women shouldered a big share of the economic, social and family responsibilities while their husbands and male relatives went to work in the mines in South Africa. As mining jobs disappeared, the textile industry became an important part of Lesotho’s economy and about 90% of the new jobs went to women.
Contrary to the trend elsewhere in the region, Basotho women are often better educated than their male counterparts because many boys in rural areas are forced to tend cattle (or head off to South Africa to work) instead of spending time in the classroom. Lesotho has a high rape rate, due partly to entrenched beliefs in men's sexual entitlement.
Lesotho’s media is in a decent state, although the government still exercises considerable power. The Lesotho Times (lestimes.com), Sunday Express (sundayexpress.co.ls) and Public Eye (www.publiceyenews.com) are English-language weeklies. TV is state-run, as is the only national radio station, Radio Lesotho, but four private stations are available in Maseru.
Not much of Lesotho's literature is available in English. However, Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka (1925), one of the greatest 20th-century African novels, and Traveller to the East (1907), the first Sotho novel, have been translated into English. Other authors to look out for include Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, who writes about female experiences in the autobiographical Singing Away the Hunger (1996).
Up in Lesotho, the hills and valleys are alive with the sound of music. Choirs are popular, as are reggae and famo (singing, often with ululations, accompanied by an accordion, oil-can drum and sometimes a bass), followed by Afropop, jazz and kwaito. The Basotho people love their songs and instruments: children in villages harmonise their hearts out in choirs; shepherd boys play their lekolulo flutes and sing in pure, pitch-perfect voices; women play the stringed thomo; and men the setolo-tolo, a sort of extended Jew’s harp that’s played using the mouth.
Lesotho has produced jazz musician Tsopo Tshola, known for his early work with the Maseru band Sankomota and more recent solo albums such as The Village Pope. A group of shepherds known as Sotho Sounds play instruments made from discarded objects: one-string fiddle (qwadinyana), guitars (katara), drums fashioned out of disused oil cans, car tyres, twigs and a kitchen sink. A triumph at Britain’s Womad Festival, they are based in Malealea, where they continue to compose and rehearse (and still perform for guests of Malealea Lodge).