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The souring diplomatic relations between Lesotho and South Africa were a key concern in the run-up to Lesotho’s 2012 general election. Until recently, the two countries have enjoyed good relations, which have encouraged cooperation in economic and infrastructural development. The most successful project in this regard is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which is a significant source of revenue for the Lesotho Government, while providing much needed water for South Africa’s industrial heartland. However, relations between Pakalitha Mosisili’s administration in Lesotho and Jacob Zuma’s administration in South Africa have become increasingly antagonistic, especially with regard to border control. The prospect of a new administration in Lesotho, fuelled by fierce opposition to Prime Minister Mosisili’s 14-year rule, gave rise to new hopes that relations between South Africa and Lesotho might improve. This expectation and the highly competitive political environment that fed it, encouraged a strong South African media interest in Lesotho’s 2012 Parliamentary election.
The objective of this paper is to provide a review of news reports about the Lesotho election by South African online media, namely, IOL (whose daily reports alternate between The Star, the Daily News and IOL news), The Sowetan (The Sowetan Live), The Daily Maverick and City Press. It looks at coverage between 25 May 2012 and 31 May 2012 to understand how the South African media framed this year’s election, in the context of the not-too-friendly relations between South Africa and Lesotho.
Antagonism creeps into Lesotho-South Africa relations
Over the years, Lesotho and South Africa have been trying to create deals to improve economic integration and trade relations between the two countries. A number of circumstances make cooperation between South Africa and Lesotho imperative. Geographically, Lesotho is wholly surrounded by South Africa. Consequently, South Africa hosts several Basotho nationals who are in the country as economic migrants. On the other side, several South African businesses operate in Lesotho, while the Gauteng province, South Africa’s economic heartland, depends on the highlands water projects for water and electricity.
In recent years, cross border crimes affecting both countries have weakened border security and strained diplomatic relations. Examples of such crimes are livestock theft and human and drug trafficking. In response to these problems, South Africa tightened border restrictions in 2010 and detained several Lesotho nationals. At the time, President Zuma was quoted as saying, “many criminals with Lesotho passports have been arrested in South Africa.”(2) This is in spite of a deal signed in 2001 that sought to facilitate the movement of goods and people across the Lesotho-South African border. During the Thabo Mbeki administration, the two governments signed the Joint Bilateral Commission for Cooperation (JBCC), which was a strategic partnership to assist Lesotho to accelerate its economic development.(3) Included in the JBCC were plans to ease cross border movement between Lesotho and South Africa. Since the deal was signed, no significant progress has been made in its implementation, with some commentators in Lesotho declaring that “it has been reduced to mediocrity.”(4) The common perception in Lesotho is that the Zuma administration has been disingenuous in pursuing the deal. South Africa’s swift action against Basotho was heavily criticised and is said to have created antipathy between the two states. Moreover, some observers in Lesotho have blamed the country’s economic regression on the lack of progress in implementing the JBCC, a state of affairs that attracted criticisms against the former Prime Minister, Mosisili.(5) It is in this context that the May 2012 general election, which came with a severe challenge to Mosisili’s rule, was seen to be of great significance to relations between South Africa and Lesotho.
Lesotho’s turbulent electoral history
Lesotho’s election history has been turbulent and conflict-ridden – a problem that has often been overlooked because the conflicts have been free of wide-scale violence. The example that best conveys Lesotho’s troubled election history is the 1997 election, during which a post-election dispute sparked violence, requiring military intervention from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) in 1998. Several months before the election, the Prime Minister, Ntsu Mokhehle, had defected from the ruling Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) to form the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). The LCD later won the election. Opposition parties publicly protested the victory, citing electoral fraud resulting from collusion between the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the LCD.
In the following years, the political landscape in Lesotho was characterised by more splits, including Thomas Thabane’s defection from the LCD to form the All Basotho Convention (ABC) in 2006. Often, party splits occurred just before an election. These splits were seldom encouraged by differences in ideology or policy – instead, they were prompted by internal leadership squabbles. This has led to the commonly held belief that Lesotho’s politics are rooted in personality cults rather than considered political thought. Moreover, neo-patrimonial rule has had a hand in how Lesotho’s political leadership conducts itself and could explain why allies become foes during election season.(6) For example, Prime Minister Mosisili is well known for leading one of the most nepotistic regimes in the country. His children and close allies held high Government posts before the LCD split.
More splits raise uncertainty about Lesotho’s political future
In February 2012, Mosisili, claiming that there were irreparable divisions within the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), abandoned the party to form the Democratic Congress (DC). Out of the 120-seat Parliament, 45 members defected to the new party and thus, the DC declared itself the new Government. The then Prime Minister argued that the remaining share of Parliament was splintered between 11 other political parties, giving DC the majority share in the August house. This was in contravention of the Constitution, which states that 61 Parliamentary seats are required to form a Government. Even so, Mosisili remained Prime Minister until the election date was announced.
After the defection, the period leading up to the 2012 election was tense. A heavy cloud of uncertainty hung over the pre-election period. The odds were stacked against the LCD and Mosisili, since both were steadily losing popularity. The DC’s sudden emergence in the political landscape split the national vote and indications were that no party could win with an outright majority. Whichever party won the election would have to form a coalition Government – an eventuality most political party leaders were not expressly partial to at the time.
The journey to the election was convoluted and wrought with controversies, mostly due to the antics of the break away DC and its leader. The LCD hauled the DC before an IEC disciplinary meeting, alleging that the DC had kept LCD party regalia.(7) The DC was then ordered to suspend its campaigning in 19 constituencies - an order it blatantly ignored. In April 2012, DC leader, Mosisili, was accused of vote-buying when he delivered groceries and a wheelchair to five elderly women in three neighbourhoods in Maseru.(8) The DC was also implicated in a vote-rigging scandal when an IEC official who is related to its constituency candidate in the district of Mohale’s Hoek was found illegally transferring voters’ names to other constituencies.(9)
After Mosisili’s defection from the LCD, fears arose that Lesotho may revisit the violence it witnessed in 1998. Concerns of pre- and post-election violence were fuelled when, on 19 April 2012, opposition supporters clashed with DC supporters at a DC rally at Ha Thetsane.(10) After the clash, the army warned that it would not tolerate any threats to a peaceful democratic process and would crack down heavily on anyone who instigated violence in the country.(11)
Other concerns about violence were related to the safety of political leaders. In recent years, several high profile politicians, including the deputy leader of the Basotho National Party (BNP), Bereng Sekhonyana, have been assassinated in their homes by unknown assailants. More recently, All Basotho Convention (ABC) chairman, Sello Machakela, was shot and killed in a strikingly similar attack.(12) These attacks have sparked rumours of a ‘hit squad’ aimed at eliminating high profile politicians.(13) Many of these cases have not been solved and several politicians feared for their safety in the run-up to the 2012 poll.(14)
DC wins election but cannot form a Government
Of the 18 political parties that competed in the 2012 election, 12 entered Parliament. From the outset, the All Basotho Convention (ABC) seemed poised for a landslide victory. However, the DC quickly gained and outdid the ABC. In the end, however, neither political party was able to secure a comfortable majority to form a Government. The DC won 48 seats, the ABC won 30 seats, the LCD won 26 seats, and the BNP won five seats.(15) According to the Constitution, if no party gains an unambiguous majority, the political party with the highest number of Parliamentary seats is allowed to court other political parties to form a coalition Government. But no parties acquiesced to a coalition with the DC. Instead, three political parties - the ABC, the BNP and the LCD - signed a deal on 29 May 2012 to form a coalition Government.(16) In the deal, Thomas Thabane, leader of the ABC, became Prime Minister and LCD leader, Mothejoa Metsing, was made Deputy Prime Minister. Members of Parliament were sworn in on 6 June 2012 and Thomas Thabane was inaugurated on 8 June 2012. The DC will now be the Leader of the opposition.
Media coverage highlights politics of personality and bitter rivalries
Significantly, of the four South African publications reporting on the Lesotho general election, the reports provided by The Sowetan, City Press and IOL relied heavily on information from the South African Press Association (SAPA) and Agence France Press (AFP) newswires. The Daily Maverick however, seems to be the only publication among the four that sent a correspondent to Lesotho. While the overall coverage may have differed at points, there were some similarities. For example, in the pre-election period, each of the publications insisted, in some way or another, on the point that the election in Lesotho was a clash of political personalities. Lesotho’s election was said to be characterised by personality cults rather than rigorous and robust debate about national issues.(17) This idea was initially activated by a quote from political analyst Hoolo ‘Nyane, who is cited in all the pre-election news reports at least once. IOL reported that these personality cults eclipsed other important national issues, including job creation and Lesotho’s relationship with South Africa. Similarly, City Press reported that “bitter personal rivalries among the three main party leaders have overshadowed worries about jobs and poverty.”(18) It also reported that “the worries of most ordinary Basotho” are “lost in the clash of personalities,” when almost half of the country’s population lives in poverty.(19) In the post-election period, The Daily Maverick reported that the success of the DC, since the party itself is less than six months old, “is testament to the cult of personality that Mosisili, in his 15 years as Prime Minister, has built around himself.”(20)
Interestingly, only The Daily Maverick and City Press indicate why supporters would choose one political personality (rather than party or leadership) over another. According to the papers, in the urban centres, the ABC has the greatest support - “not necessarily because their policies are any better [than the DC’s or the LCD’s], or even different, but simply because they represent change.”(21) Besides, given that the LCD, the ABC and the DC are splinters of the same congress movement – the BCP – it is not likely that their policies will differ. The Daily Maverick also asserts that Mosisili has supporters because of the relative peace and stability during his rule.(22) Similarly, City Press reported that Mosisili was asking for another term “campaigning on Lesotho’s relative stability on his watch, which ended a long dictatorship and a rocky period of monarchy.”(23)
However, the relative peace and stability during Mosisili’s rule have been tainted by incessant political wrangling. Put another way, the peace and stability associated with Mosisili’s rule reported in The Daily Maverick and City Press contrasts with the image of Mosisili as a largely unlikeable, despotic leader who has overseen several violent incursions and political squabbles whilst in power. The latter image is presented in all the papers. Based on the narratives provided by these papers, Mosisili’s entrance into State house was controversial because he was part of the movement that broke apart from the first democratically elected party – the BCP. However, the opposition was unhappy with the vote, alleging vote fraud, and protests against his election became so violent that military intervention from South Africa was required. Furthermore, Lesotho has regressed socially and economically in the time that he has been in power.
As a result, Mosisili is portrayed as a leader who has been constantly feuding with many of his allies because he would not step down in spite of his bad leadership – the effects of which have been discussed above. Sowetan Live and IOL reported that the leader had “established himself as a towering figure”(24) that “doesn't seem to be ready to relinquish power.”(25) IOL and Sowetan Live painted Mosisili as a “master of manipulating politics”(26) who has been orchestrating, whether intentionally or not, political stand-offs for the bulk of his career. In addition to that, The Sowetan,(27) City Press (28) and IOL (29) reported that the American-based polling company, Gallup, reported that Mosisili only had a 39% approval rating. Each of the papers argued that the poll put Mosisili among the top five of most despised leaders in Africa and this polling result likened him to Robert Mugabe. The papers neglected to mention that while 61% of Basotho disapproved of Mosisili’s leadership, the survey also found that 37% of Basotho disapproved of the country’s leadership in general.(30)
In so doing, the papers present Mosisili as a political pariah with whom nobody in Lesotho’s political landscape would want to associate. He is presented as both despotic and uncooperative, even on matters that require serious attention. As the vote results trickled into the capital and it was becoming clear that there would be no clear winner, The Daily Maverick insinuated that the only way Mosisili and the DC could increase their numbers in Parliament was to “persuade a few unscrupulous opposition politicians to cross the floor”(31) – the insinuation being that other politicians would have to be corrupted in order to join the DC. By implication, the DC and Mosisili have become so unpopular with the nation and their peers that they must resort to underhanded means to stay in power. Metsing and Thabane, were once his allies, and after the inconclusive result they formed a coalition against him and the DC. IOL’s narrative instead highlighted how the opposition rejected Mosisili and his new party. IOL went as far asreporting that the post-election coalition Government is anti-Mosisili.(32) The negative portrayal of Mosisili underscores the argument for another regime to take over. Mosisili’s failures are listed to show that he is incapable of leading the country and, by implication, he would be an ineffective bilateral partner for South Africa.
The threat of violence and the need for South Africa’s intervention
All four papers referred back to the post-election skirmishes of 1998 as a vantage point for the 2012 election. The leads in at least three of the reports by IOL, City Press and Sowetan Live foreground South Africa’s military intervention in 1998. A key difference between them, however, is that while Sowetan Live focused on the implications of a smooth transition of power from the Mosisili-led regime to a new one, City Press and IOL focused on the danger of there being another eruption of violence in this poll. Again quoting Hoolo ‘Nyane, IOL reported that the DC not being able to form a Government was a “disturbing scenario” and thus, the prospect of post-election violence was not entirely unlikely.(33) IOL added that Lesotho has undergone several military coups. In fact, this theme is replete throughout IOL’s coverage. Lesotho has only had one military coup in 1986. IOL also reported that the post-election coalition between the ABC, LCD, PFD, MFP and BNP set the stage for a rerun of the 1998 violence.
The Daily Maverick revealed the mixed bag of emotions during the election period which made it difficult to determine whether or not violence was a possibility. The rivalries between supporters of the DC, the ABC and the LCD were obvious, but the mood in Lesotho at the time was more celebratory than antagonistic.(34) However, The Daily Maverick was cautious not to dismiss the possibility of violence.(35) Only The Daily Maverick criticised South Africa’s military intervention in 1998, calling it a “complete disaster.”(36) Nonetheless, the overall theme invoked by these papers shows Lesotho’s relationship with South Africa as one of dependence rather than co-dependency. The implication being that Lesotho is a country whose volatile political status during elections may lead to violence which may require intervention from South Africa.
The overall coverage by all the media outlets focussed on the diplomatic tensions between Lesotho and South Africa in recent years, tensions that were fuelled in part by Mosisili’s gross mismanagement of the country. Mosisili’s fall from grace is seen as a positive change for Lesotho, and by extension, its relations with South Africa. South Africa’s involvement in Lesotho’s 1998 skirmishes may have set the tone for how it views Lesotho today. The media discourse about the 2012 election has revealed that Lesotho is seen as economically weak and dependent on South Africa, not least because it is wholly surrounded by it. This depiction has led Sowetan Live, City Press and IOL to overlook some of the important nuances of Lesotho’s political landscape.
It is plausible to suggest that their reliance on international newswires led to this gap. By comparison, The Daily Maverick offered a relatively more in-depth coverage of the election. The Daily Maverick was also the only one that tackled South Africa’s foreign policy more seriously. Nevertheless, The Daily Maverick’s coverage does not depart from the largely stereotypical depictions of Lesotho found in Sowetan Live, the City Press and IOL.
Written by Mookho Makthetha (1)
(1) Contact Mookho Makhetha through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Election Reflection Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
(2) Lekhetho, N., ‘Zuma damages JBCC’, Public Eye, 23 August 2010, http://www.publiceyenews.com.
(3) ‘South Africa: Zuma heads to Lesotho’, Bua News, 6 August 2010, http://www.buanews.gov.za.
(4) Lekhetho, N., ‘Zuma damages JBCC’, Public Eye, 23 August 2010, http://www.publiceyenews.com.
(6) Kapa, M., 2008. The politics of coalition formation and democracy in Lesotho. Politikon, 35(3), pp.339-256.
(7) Molomo, N. and Tlali, C., ‘IEC bars DC from 19 constituencies’, Lesotho Times, 17 May 2012, http://www.lestimes.com.
(8) Zihlangu, B., ‘Mosisili accused of vote-buying’, Lesotho Times, 11 April 2012, http://www.lestimes.com.
(9) Tlali, C., ‘Voter fraud unearthed’, Lesotho Times, 9 May 2012, http://www.lestimes.com.
(10) Redvers, L., ‘Lesotho in “personality” poll’, Mail and Guardian, 17 May 2012, http://www.mg.co.za.
(11) Tlali, C., ‘Army threatens crackdown’, Sunday Express, 22 April 2012, http://sundayexpress.co.ls.
(12) Khanyela, M., ‘ABC chairman Machakela shot dead’, Public Eye Daily, 20 March 2012, http://www.publiceye.co.ls.
(13) Zihlangu, B., ‘We are marked for death’, Lesotho Times, 28 March 2012, http://www.lestimes.com.
(14) Tlali, C., ‘Army threatens crackdown’, Sunday Express, 22 April 2012, http://sundayexpress.co.ls.
(15) ‘Lesotho: Opposition Trounces Mosisili’, Southern Africa Report, 1 June 2012, http://www.southernafricareport.com.
(16) Zihlangu, B., ‘Deal sealed’, Lesotho Times, 31 May 2012, http://www.lestimes.com.
(17) ‘Lesotho to vote in three-horse race’, IOL (The Star), 25 May 2012, http://www.iol.co.za.
(18) ‘Lesotho votes in tight three way race’, City Press, 26 May 2012, http://www.citypress.co.za.
(20) Allison, S., ‘Lesotho election: Prime Minister leading the race - but not by enough’, The Daily Maverick, 28 May 2012, http://dailymaverick.co.za.
(23) ‘Lesotho votes in tight three-way race’, City Press, 26 May 2012, http://www.citypress.co.za.
(25) Mohloboli, M., ‘Lesotho PM misses poll victory’, IOL (IOL News), 29 May 2012, http://www.iol.co.za.
(27) ‘Lesotho votes in closely fought three-way race’, The Sowetan Live, 25 May 2012, http://www.sowetanlive.co.za.
(28) ‘Lesotho votes in tight three-way race’, City Press, 26 May 2012, http://www.citypress.co.za.
(29) ‘Lesotho to vote in three horse race’, IOL (The Star), 25 May 2012, http://www.iol.co.za.
(30) ‘Shock survey result’, Lesotho Times (online), 17 May 2012, http://www.lestimes.com.
(31) Allison, S., ‘Lesotho election: Prime Minister leading the race - but not by enough’, The Daily Maverick, 28 May 2012, http://dailymaverick.co.za.
(32) ‘Lesotho PM falls short in election’, IOL (The Daily News), 30 May 2012, http://www.iol.co.za.
(33) ‘Lesotho heads for tense, open election’, IOL (IOL news), 25 May 2012, http://www.iol.co.za.
(34) Allison, S., ‘Idle talk of invasion: Why Lesotho is safe for now’, Daily Maverick, 30 May 2012, http://dailymaverick.co.za.
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