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Tension Between South Africa and Lesotho

In January 2018, King Letsie of Lesotho spoke out concerning offensive treatment he experienced from South African officials at the border between the two countries. This caused tension with then President, Jacob Zuma, who has since been replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa.

The exact details of the incident at the border are unknown; however, some claim that King Letsie was detained for an unnecessary amount of time because of an ongoing quarrel over passports between the two countries. Many have turned their attention towards social media to voice their concerns about the incident, with many claiming to have also been purposefully slowed down by officials at the border. There have even been claims that South African officials have destroyed Lesotho passports.

 King Letsie III (Source: Wikipedia)

King Letsie III (Source: Wikipedia)

At the time of the incident in January, King Letsie complained to President Zuma and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation for South Africa at the time. Neither of these two officials apologized or recognized the concerns of King Letsie and others.

This past Tuesday, Lindiwe Sisulu, who has been the new Minister of International Relations since February, did apologize for the incident in January, and has offered to travel to Lesotho so that she can apologize to the King in person. Therefore, since the change in South African leadership, there seems to be a very different approach being taken to address this issue.

 Map of Lesotho (Source: Wikipedia)

Map of Lesotho (Source: Wikipedia)

 Map of Lesotho (Source: Wikipedia)

Map of Lesotho (Source: Wikipedia)

The geography of the two countries, and their interactions as it pertains to migration and the economy, perhaps account for this conflict, and this new approach. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, which necessitates constant engagement between the two countries. One survey taken in 2003 reports that 37% of citizens of Lesotho have a family member working in South Africa, 26% have a family member settled permanently in South Africa, and 18% own South African identification documents.

With this high level of migration from Lesotho into South Africa, it can be seen why there might be concern about the openness of the border. President Zuma held excessive migration as notable issue during his term, perhaps explaining the previous tension. However, this new approach marks a change in strategy, and reflects Mr Ramaphosa’s prioritization of peace and stability over confrontation.