Border wars

The Joint Boundary Commission that Lesotho and South Africa have revived, gives hope that some sort of border deal might be possible between the two countries.

The Sani Pass Border Post in Lesotho. Image credit Michael Jansen via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

Within the last year, Lesotho’s politics have been rocked and roiled by a series of scandals around now former Prime Minister Tom Thabane that ended with his ouster. Current Prime Minister, Dr. Moeketsi Majoro, has been hailed as a new, technocratic face in politics, qualities in high demand in a country long led by political insider figures. Former prime ministers Thabane and Pakalitha Mosisili, who between them exclusively held the top office from 1998 until 2020, were not quick to leave the scene. Despite the Basotho public clamoring for new leaders at the top, Majoro still faces strong headwinds. Coming to power at the helm of an unwieldly nine-party coalition, and in control of only part of his own fissiparous ruling All-Basotho Convention (ABC), there was pessimism that Majoro would be able to achieve anything of note, especially given the coronavirus pandemic and a new general election due within two years.

However, after two sets of meetings, one in Pretoria in early November and one in Maseru in mid-November, the governments of Lesotho and South Africa have announced they are ready to rekindle and reenergize an obscure 2001 agreement that could hold the key to materially improving the lives of Basotho residents. The blandly titled Joint Bilateral Commission of Cooperation (JBCC) is, perhaps, an unlikely vehicle upon which to place optimism. Originally conceived as a mechanism to facilitate better communication at the ministerial levels between governments, this bureaucratic and technocratic framework for discussions is now being utilized to work towards a historic border deal that would facilitate better, easier, and freer movement between the two countries. The free border movement agreement could take the form of the current arrangement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, in which virtually all border checks and controls have been abolished, and Irish and British citizens are not required to carry a passport. In a move that is exciting for the potential it holds to make the JBCC truly revolutionary in rethinking relations between South Africa and its enclave state, the revised agreement also covers important but mundane details like protection of migrant workers, harmonization of education qualifications, defense cooperation and intelligence sharing, agricultural development, direct sea access for Lesotho’s exports, and cooperative disease surveillance, among other matters. In short, it marks a comprehensive attempt to harmonize not just the border but most important policy areas between the two countries.

The recent meeting in Pretoria and Maseru marked the first time since 2013 that the pact was even activated, highlighting how little the governments had worked together on this issue under ex-President Jacob Zuma in South Africa and the recent procession of Thabane and Mosisili-led coalition governments in Lesotho.

In a twist, it was the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on border crossings that led to this potential breakthrough in talks between the two countries. It would be ironic, but in some ways fitting, that it took a crisis of global proportion to finally make progress on the local border issues that give Basotho such hassle. Tanki Mothae, Principal Secretary in Lesotho’s Ministry of Law and Justice, claimed that the overarching goal of the JBCC was to make the borders more “user friendly” for commerce via the implementation of new “one stop border posts” at both Maseru and Ficksburg, and to make all high-traffic border areas more efficient for the movement of people. Likewise, South Africa’s Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Dr. Naledi Pandor, declared that the JBCC would “change lives for the better” by focusing talks and policies on better serving youth, women, and others negatively impacted by the borders. This synchronism in talk about reforming the border is a new development that has not been seen at any point recently from such a broad swath of political actors.

Of course, this kind of talk, until the implementation of a deal that brings about measurable change, is just that—talk. Lesotho’s Prime Minister Majoro stressed border policy from his very first visit to South Africa onward, but all of these developments build on the momentum generated by ex-Prime Minister Thabane’s government that had finally pushed through Parliamentary approval for a constitutional amendment that allowed for dual citizenship. This change has been pushed for decades by Basotho in civil society and their pressure campaign finally came to fruition, as deeper integration between the two countries has long been much more popular among Basotho writ large than their political leaders who feared loss of population to South Africa and a commiserate decline in their own political power.

Talking a good game on border policy reform but failing to deliver has been a leitmotif of Lesotho’s Prime Ministers since independence. What gives the JBCC a new feel is the popular pressure from Basotho “voting with their feet” in moving to South Africa in ever-increasing numbers and the rhetorical agreement coming from the South African side. With the support of President Cyril Ramaphosa, a frequent visitor to Lesotho from his time leading regional mediation teams to Maseru when he was South African Deputy President, discussions around the JBCC have a substantively different feel than any previous border talks this century.

The devil will always be in the details and will bear careful watching in early 2021 as the first deals are officially signed, and there are still plenty of opportunities for this chance to also slip through the fingers like sand, but the popular support in Lesotho, joint high-level support, and the political courage it takes to do this at the moment when xenophobia is again tearing across South Africa suggests that this process has a real chance of success. The most vocal support for stronger ties between the two countries has come from South African Finance Minister, and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, Tito Mboweni. Looking fondly on the Mountain Kingdom from his time spent there as an undergraduate at the National University of Lesotho, Mr. Mboweni has over the past decade criticized SA-Lesotho border restrictions and called for the free movement of capital and labor between the two countries. Across the political aisle, leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have also consistently questioned the existence of the hard border between Lesotho and South Africa.

The border is such a live issue in Lesotho because it impacts so many Basotho. While the country is relatively small, with a de jure population just over 2 million, the number of crossings at Lesotho’s border posts with South Africa is rivaled only by the number of crossings between RSA and Zimbabwe. This makes the main border posts—Maseru Bridge and Ficksburg Bridge—particularly difficult crossing points with long queues, especially during the festive season when seasonal and migrant workers flock back to the Mountain Kingdom. Of note, of course, is the fact that many people also cross the border unofficially at points distant from the designated areas.

The creation of the Lesotho Special Permit (now the Lesotho Exemption Permit (LEP)) that regularized the status of some Basotho in South Africa starting in 2016 suggests that the South African government has increasingly come to worry about the presence of Basotho in the Republic without valid papers, and has been seeking solutions. Still, the LEP represents a stop-gap measure subject to cancellation at any time. The JBCC agreement, on the other hand, marks the best possibility for reaching a broader agreement that would regularize crossing for more Basotho and potentially eliminate some of the more-dangerous illegal crossings.

So, what is it that makes this deal one with such possibility? First, the updated agreement takes a process that had been at the ministerial level and elevates it to the level of the presidency (for South Africa) and the prime minister (for Lesotho). This high-level attention could keep the process focused on the areas of greatest need (i.e., changes in border crossing procedures and living/working permissions) rather than on issues that happen to cater to the whims of individual ministers at any given point.

Another piece of the optimism comes from the fact that the second largest party in Lesotho, the Democratic Congress (DC) under its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu, seems fully onboard with it. Mokhothu led the Lesotho delegation to Pretoria at the start of November. Combined Majoro’s ABC and Mokhothu’s DC hold 78 of the 120 seats in Parliament. If the JBCC can, indeed, move beyond Ministerial talk to the stage that it is delivering border relief and policy harmonization for Basotho—both issues that would profoundly and positively impact the lives of thousands of ordinary Basotho—it could, firstly, unleash new economic opportunities with a potential to address the widespread poverty and economic despair that stalk many Basotho.

Secondly, it could end the era of shaky coalitions in Lesotho. With the ABC and the DC both under newer, younger leadership, and barring major splits that could decimate their electoral fortunes, a significant political victory like the JBCC could provide the necessary optimism to allow these parties a convincing victory in the upcoming 2022 parliamentary elections. Returned with a similar majority, the ABC and DC could then ditch their minor coalition partners that have so destabilized Lesotho’s politics over the past eight years. This, in turn, could lead to better governance, as the bloated cabinet could shrink since ministerial portfolios would not have to be reserved for junior coalition partners. Of course, it could also all blow up or the ruling parties could split yet again, forestalling any political gains. But for there to be a viable path forward out of Lesotho’s political morass represents progress in itself.

The revival of the JBCC was unexpected and has for the first time in recent memory breathed a sense of hope into some in Lesotho and South Africa that the thorny problem of the border might just see some solutions beneficial to ordinary people. It has jolted a fairly jaded populace that, just maybe, a post-COVID world can indeed be one where transformational change is possible in ways that did not seem likely before the virus upended social and political norms. If it leads to substantive talks and agreements that help ordinary Basotho surmount the legal and physical obstacles to crossing the border, the JBCC represents the possibility that the two countries could govern in the interest of their citizens, using not the politics of cronyism, but rather a broad definition of public good.

About the Author

John Aerni-Flessner is Assosictae Professor of African and World History at Michigan State University.

Moletsane Monyake was a lecturer in political science at the National University of Lesotho. He died from complications from COVID-19 in January 2021.

Further Reading