Lesotho: Late British protectorate (1913-1966)

Updated February 2007

The British did little to develop the country, which increasingly became regarded as little more than a labour reserve to service the needs of the farmers of the Orange Free State and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand (Lodge et al 2002, 89; Eldredge 1993, 175-176, 189). Letsie II's successor, Lerotholi, focused on internal political struggles aimed at consolidating the power of the monarchy over the minor chiefs, expanding the sway of the Catholic Church and resisting pressure for political reform from the Basutoland Progressive Association and the Commoners' League (Lesotho Government Undated). Political reform in the 1930's was restricted to attempts to correct the inefficiencies of the courts of the chiefs and to restrict the proliferation of chiefdoms; these were stimulated by growing unrest amongst commoners as the extractions of the chiefdoms were made increasingly intolerable by the Great Depression and accompanying drought (Lye & Murray1980, 83; Lodge et al 2002, 89).

Lerotholi died just before the outbreak of World War II, on 3 August 1939 and after the brief reign of Seeiso (d 26 December 1940) and the regency of Masopha (until 28 January 1941), the long regency of 'Mantsebo (1941-1960) followed (Lesotho Government Undated). As with other British colonies, the contradictions between rapid social and economic change and the outmoded forms of indirect rule were brought to the fore, resulting in new concepts of nationalism and undermining both the legitimacy of colonial power and the traditional structures through which it governed: "As the self-confidence of educated commoners grew, they began to take a more prominent role in Basutoland, to a great extent displacing the chiefs as the backbone of society" (Institute of Security Studies 2003). The emergence of Apartheid in South Africa, where many Basotho earned their living, had a direct and radicalising impact on the population. The consequence was the emergence of new modern political parties (Lodge et al 2002, 90).

In 1952 Dr Ntsu Mokhehle established the Basutoland African Congress (later Basutoland Congress Party, BCP) by bringing together elements from both the Commoners League and the Basutoland Progressive Association (Lodge et al 2002, 90). The BCP fought against racial discrimination and advocated self-rule for Basotholand (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lesotho Government Undated). The radicalism of the BCP alienated conservative Catholics and the chiefs leading to the breakaway of the royalist Marema-Tlou Party (MTP) led by SS Matete in 1957 and the formation of the conservative Basotholand National Party led by Chief Leabua Jonathan in 1958 to counter the BCP (Lye & Murray, 84; Lesotho Government Undated; Institute of Security Studies 2003). On the left, the Communist Party of Lesotho was founded in 1960 by Joe Matthews, a South African exile, to oppose the Pan African Congress alignment adopted by Mokhehle (Lodge et al 2002, 90). In 1960 a second faction of the BCP broke away to form the Basotholand Freedom Party which merged with the MTP in 1963 to form the Marerna-Tlou Freedom Party (Lye & Murray, 84; Institute of Security Studies 2003).

Constitutional change gathered pace in the 1950s and early '60's as a result of this political ferment, despite British fears of alienating South Africa. District Councils were in place in 1950 which included both chiefs and elected representatives (Lesotho Government Undated). The Basotholand Council consisted of 100 members. These were the Regent 'Mantsebo, 52 members appointed by the Regent, five by the British Commissioner, six by designated interest groups and 48 designated by the District Councils, four from each of the nine (Lodge et al 2002, 89). In 1955 the Basutoland Council requested the right to legislate on Basotholand's internal affairs (Wikipedia 2007). After much shilly-shallying the British accepted the 1958 recommendation of a commission that the National Council be transformed into Legislative Council (Institute of Security Studies 2003). In 1959 Basutoland was made a British Colony and Moshoeshoe II ascended the throne in 1960, while the Basotholand National Council was inaugurated in the same year (South African History Online Undated; Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lesotho Government Undated).

The Basotholand National Council was comprised one half of appointed chiefs and the other half of members elected by the District Councils (Lesotho Government Undated). The nominated members were the 22 principle chiefs, 14 members appointed by Moshoeshoe II and four by the Commissioner; the BCP and its allies won 30 of the 40 indirectly elected seats in the Basotholand National Council, with five going to the BNP, one to the MTP and four to independents (Lodge et al 2002, 91). However, with the support of the appointed members, the Executive Council was dominated by conservatives (Lesotho Government Undated; Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lye & Murray 1980, 84).

The BCP reacted to the situation by demanding constitutional reform and its calls were backed by Moshoeshoe II; in 1961 he appointed a Constitutional Review Commission to draft an independence constitution (Lyle & Murray 1980, 84; Institute of Security Studies 2003). In October 1993 it recommended a constitutional monarchy with executive power in the hands of a Prime Minister who would be answerable to a two-chamber parliament comprised of a lower house, whose members would be from single member constituencies elected by plurality, and an upper house comprised two-thirds of principle chiefs and one-third of monarchical appointments (Lesotho Government Undated). The report, with modifications to the details, was accepted in 1964 by the Basotholand National Council and, after a constitutional conference in London, by the British (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005; Lye & Murray 1980, 84).

Elections under the new constitution were held in April 1965 and were won by the BNP with a minority of votes (42%) and a small majority of seats (31 of 60) (see 1965 National Assembly election results). The MFP split just prior to the elections and faired badly, taking only 4 seats, while the BCP became the official opposition with 25 seats (Lodge et al 2002, 91). Setting a pattern that was to characterise electoral politics in the future, the opposition contested the results alleging electoral fraud and violent conflicts followed (Lodge et al 2002, 96). The two opposition parties attempted to stall the independence process and combined, with support from Moshoeshoe II, to agitate for greater executive powers for the King iro foreign affairs and the military (Lodge et al 2002, 92). The Moshoeshoe II attempted to block the motion before Parliament requesting independence by replacing 5 of the 11 senators nominated by him, but the High Court ruled that his right to appoint senators did not include the right to dismiss them, and the motion was passed (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005). The opposition withdrew from the final independence conference in June 1966 and King Moshoeshoe refused to sign the independence agreement (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005).

Independence was restored to the Kingdom of Lesotho on 4 October 1966 by Britain under circumstance that boded ill for its future. The people were impoverished, the land was mountainous and endowed with few natural resources, the economy was underdeveloped and heavily dependent on remittances from migrant labour and it was wholly surrounded by a more powerful and potentially hostile foreign state. Its politics was characterised by a non-executive King who would not accept that limited role, a government whose legitimacy was called into question since it governed on a minority of votes, an embittered and confrontational opposition that felt cheated and marginalised and a general tendency amongst all involved to resort to violence to express political dissatisfaction.


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