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Lesotho: Real freedom after 50 years of independence?

Christine Harjes so
October 3, 2016

On October 4, Lesotho is celebrating 50 years of independence from Great Britain. But do its people really have a reason to celebrate?

Lesotho Feier während einer Eröffnungszeremonie in Maseru
Image: AFP/Getty Images

"Yes we have a reason to party because as a nation we now have our future in our own hands," said Lenka Thamae from the Transformation Resource Center, a local NGO that tries to advocate for political participation and justice. Thamae, however, elaborated on his answer, noting that the government hadn't fulfilled the peoples' expectations for the last 50 years.

The small country with its 2.2 million people is governed by a quasi-democracy, or what it calls a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. It has both a king who largely holds a ceremonial function and it has an elected parliament.

'Massive human rights abuses through the military'

In the past two years, Thamae explained, the mood in the country has become more tense. Elections in 2015 were supposed to restore political calm, after the alleged military coup against the then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane a year earlier. The new Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, however, had to form a coalition of seven parties to form his government.

A school for child shepherds in Lesotho

The actual opposition parties are, however, not involved in Lesotho politics as their leaders live in exile in South Africa. They maintain that they feel threatened by the army. "Recently we have been having too many problems," Thamae told DW. "Violations of human rights by the military are now condoned by the ruling elite." Our democracy, he added, is now in the hands of the army.

Unlike in neighboring South Africa, Lesotho's civil society and unions rarely play a role in political decision-making. These are also issues that Germany's development agency GIZ wants to address. "From a development perspective, it's important to strengthen democracy in Lesotho, and to strengthen political and civic participation," said Alexander Erich, program head of GIZ in Lesotho. Lesotho, he explained, has three main challenges: food security, unemployment and HIV/AIDS. Over one in five persons in the country is infected with the virus.

Water for South Africa

Water power in Lesotho

On Tuesday, October 4, Lesotho celebrates its independence in the football stadium of the capital Maseru. But is the country really free? 50 years down the line it still depends heavily on foreign aid. It also imports 95 percent of its goods from South Africa. Lesotho's own income mainly comes from the production of textiles, which make up about 20 percent of its income and which it sells through a trade agreement with the US. 

"Lesotho has no choices," said Thamae. Instead its political and economic ties are dictated by its geo-political situation. And that's of an advantage for its big neighbor South Africa. South Africa, for instance, heavily on Lesotho's water. The Mohale and Katse dams are both part of the Lesotho Highland Water Project and deliver up to 40 million liters of water to South Africa's Gauteng region on a daily basis. A fair deal? Not really, Thamae said. "Lesotho is a small country. It has no prospects of negotiating any sustainable and fair deals."