Lesotho is celebrating 50 years of independence from British protection, with several activities being lined up to mark this Jubilee. The country gained independence on 4 October 1966. The Director of Languages in the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, Mr Ratokelo Nkoka, speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about this occasion. Mr Nkoka, who is also a renowned historian, is a member of the National Celebrations Committee organising the celebrations.
LT: Lesotho is celebrating 50 years of independence this year, but the country still faces several political and socioeconomic challenges which have prompted some people to ask if there is really something to celebrate. But maybe you could start by taking us through Lesotho’s political journey since independence in 1966?
Nkoka: Lesotho gained independence from British rule or protection on 4 October 1966. We had been under British protection for 98 years since 1868. That was almost 100 years. That shows how too long we had not been able to do things for ourselves. So it was high time, in 1966, that we introspected and start being independent. It was high time we took responsibility, governing and finding freedom. That is my understanding of being independent. We were not the only ones who wanted to break away from being colonised. Many other African countries also sought independence around the same time. European countries could not stop them even if they tried. In other African countries, blood was shed for them to gain independence. They fought for it. People walked over corpses in those countries. Angola was one them. But with us it was so fortunate that we gained our independence through sheer negotiations. But what people should know is that Lesotho, unlike other African countries whose independence came through blood, managed to easily negotiate its independence because of Basotho’s contribution in the Second World War. Basotho went to this war in large numbers to assist the English people. That contribution influenced negotiations for Lesotho to gain its independence.
LT: But do you think Lesotho has proved capable of governing itself since then?
Nook: Absolutely. We took over and proved we could govern ourselves. The first general elections were held in 1965, just a year before independence. The Basotho National Party (BNP) won the election and became the first party to take over government. But the party’s leader, Dr Leabua Jonathan, was once a Congress man (member of the then Basutoland Congress Party (BCP). He left when there was a lot of criticism that Congress members were communists and that their idea was to get rid of the monopoly enjoyed by chiefs over the rest of the citizens. For instance, the perception was that Congress members, if they got into power, were going to allow the citizens’ cattle to graze together with those of the chiefs, which was something forbidden back then. In other words, the Congress would allow for things to be shared equally among Basotho, regardless of whether one was a chief or commoner. But the chiefs, and Dr Leabua was a chief, were not going to allow that to easily happen. Some church authorities also enjoyed the monopoly and would not easily agree to the Congress ideology – being Mahatammoho (doing things together, sharing one vision). Today, we call that smart partnership, and that is the same ideology.
LT: So what happened in the 1965 elections, if we could go back to that defining moment?
Nkoka: The BNP won most constituencies in the mountainous rural parts of the country, while the BCP won the remaining constituencies in the urban. The constituencies were 60 in total. The BNP won 31 and BCP won 29. So you could see it was a small margin. Do you know the reason why? There was a perception that the BCP, being communists, were going to enforce that livestock, mostly reared by people in the rural area, should be shared equally among every Mosotho such that people in the rural areas felt they were going to lose their animals once the BCP was in power. The principles of communism and capitalism were central to political campaigns between the Congress and the Nationalists ahead of the 1965 elections.
LT: You mentioned something about church authorities. How was the church involved in politics?
Nkoka: The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) was aligned to the Nationalists because of the way it assisted the BNP in its campaign. The Congress, on the other hand, were associated with the Lesotho Evangelical Church (LEC).
LT: From what you said, it is clear Basotho have always been divided along political lines and religion. But going back to my original question-have we been able to govern ourselves as Basotho?
Nkoka: It has been a bumpy journey, yes, but there have been still notable successes. And to answer your question, yes, we were able govern ourselves after independence. Dr Leabua built tarred roads, schools, government offices and other notable developments. It was a milestone. But again, his governance was not going to be an easy journey to travel due to the strong opposition. Remember he had 31 seats while the BCP had 29 seats in parliament. Elections were held on 29 April 1965. Things happened very fast between then and 4 October 1966 so that we could have a solid government upon independence.
LT: There was some drama during the next general elections of 1970, so history tells us…
Nkoka: Just before the final results of the 1970 elections were announced, there were already signs that something was going to happen. We had listened to our national radio station where preliminary results were being announced. But Radio Lesotho stopped announcing the results shortly after we heard that both the BNP and BCP had won 23 constituencies each, out of the total 60. We had to resort to South Africa’s Radio Bantu which continued to announce the results because Radio Lesotho had suddenly stopped announcing the results following the stalemate. We heard from Radio Bantu that the BCP had now won 36 constituencies while the BNP was stuck at 23. There was also one constituency which was technically allocated to the Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP).But from Radio Lesotho, instead of announcing the results, we were told Dr Leabua was going to make an important announcement. That’s where he announced that the elections had been rigged and he declared a state of emergency. That was the beginning of our troubles.
LT: What do you mean?
Nkoka: If you could make thorough research, you will learn that Dr Leabua actually intended to hand over the reins to the Congress authorities, but his cronies were very resistant. They are the ones who forced him to declare the state of emergency. It was at this juncture that Lesotho’s development progress was effectively halted. Our economy fell, the education system was ruined, and everything fell apart. When Dry Leabua declared the state of emergency, members of the opposition, mainly the Congress people, were arrested and detained. Others were assaulted. People were accused of keeping their hair big because that was associated with the Congress people. Where I come from, Mathebe (Mafeteng), houses were burnt. Where I come from, there are still victims of 1970 even today; there are traces of blood at some places. People were tortured and killed in the worst forms of murder. They were being dragged behind pick-up trucks and left traces of blood before they died. The Congress people, on the other hand, strategised ways to revenge, but their plan to disarm the armed forces failed. All in all, as Basotho, we lost 23 years of our independence fighting each other from 1970 until democracy was restored in 1993. We are celebrating 50 years of independence this year, but in actual fact we lost 23 years along the way. A dark cloud hung over Lesotho between 1970 and 1993. That period was wasted politically, economically, and culturally.
LT: Would you say the church played a role even during this wasted time as you put it?
Nkoka: Definitely, yes. There is no way you can separate our main churches from politics. Priests have played big roles in the politics of this country. When Dr Leabua left the Congress party to form the BNP, he also left the LEC, which had been his previous denomination, to join the RCC. This also said a lot about how these two churches differed along political lines. Some priests were arrested and sent to Maximum Prison after 1970. This shows how deep the churches were involved in politics.
LT: Could you tell us about the 1993 elections…
Nkoka: The BCP got into power in 1993. This was their opportunity to turn things around but they also messed up due to greediness, disloyalty, hatred and jealousy. You would expect the BCP to take advantage of being the only party represented in parliament and implement policies without hassles. However, we understand it was not easy for them to administer the nation because all the armed forces comprised mostly Nationalists at the time. Definitely the armed forces resisted the Congress administration. They were enemies. People were yet again killed due to that resistance to change.
LT: Would you say we have similar challenges even today?
Nkoka: We still have political issues that hinder our economic progress. As we speak, there are issues between the opposition and seven parties that form the government. There are also issues of the army and the police. But is it really true that there is no peace in this country like some people claim? I don’t think so. As a nation, I think we sometimes unnecessarily pose danger to ourselves. In my humble opinion, there is no valid reason why we should be having some of our opposition leaders in exile. People are raising issues of AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is an American legislation that allows certain products to enter the US duty-free from eligible nations whose selection is centred around the country’s respect for the rule of law) but we have heard how the Minister of Trade and Industry, Joshua Setipa, assured us of the renewal of our term.
LT: So what you are basically saying is that Basotho have something to celebrate despite the challenges they might face politically?
Nkoka: We have so much to celebrate for our 50 years of independence. For instance, we have beautiful roads today. You can now travel to Mokhotlong in a matter of a few hours after road construction from Maseru to that district was finalised recently. The same construction has been made from Maseru to Thaba-Tseka. Short roads within Maseru and other towns have been upgraded. There have been new government schools built. We are now experiencing how it feels to be in good relations with South Africa through the recently introduced Lesotho Special Permits. Maybe we should also celebrate by introspecting. We should check what went wrong such that we hate each other so much. Those in exile should come back. We need to celebrate together and plan together how best we can take Lesotho forward.
LT: As a committee, how have you organised the independence celebrations?
Nkoka: We have compiled a proposal of ceremonial events ahead of the main celebration on 4 October 2016. Our initial plan was to have small celebrations at district level first. But time has lapsed for some of the events we intended to hold. This is because the government has not yet approved our proposed budget. But during the main ceremony in October, we have lined up a series of events that will take place at Setsoto Stadium. The events will include speeches by His Majesty King Letsie III and the Prime Minister. There will also be an army parade and lectures about Lesotho’s projection for the next 50 years. We have invited stakeholders for their input.