Surrounded on all sides by South Africa, the tiny kingdom of Lesotho prudently adopted a co-operative attitude toward its white-ruled neighbor after gaining independence from Britain in 1966. But in recent years Lesotho’s prime minister, Leabua Jonathan, became increasingly critical of South Africa and gave refuge to black South African dissidents. Then, on Jan. 1 South Africa virtually blockaded Lesotho by holding up vital railway shipments across their common border. That pressure provoked Jonathan’s domestic opponents. Early last week Maj.-Gen. Justin Lekhanya, commander of Lesotho’s 1,800-member paramilitary force, seized power in a bloodless coup that signalled a more docile attitude on Lesotho’s part toward its powerful neighbor.
Moving swiftly to find a solution to the South African blockade, Lekhanya sent a high-level delegation to Cape Town for talks. For their part, South African officials relaxed the blockade and allowed trains carrying badly needed fuel to enter Lesotho. After assuming power Lekhanya called for unity among Lesotho’s 1.5 million people and said that King Moshoeshoe II, 47, whom Jonathan had stripped of all but ceremonial duties, would exercise executive and legislative powers on the advice of a military council.
The 71-year-old Jonathan—who was apparently confined to his home north of Lesotho’s capital of Maseru—owed his downfall to both domestic and ex-
ternal factors. Earlier this month fighting between rival factions in the paramilitary force broke out after soldiers evidently attempted to disarm members of a militant youth league which his opponents claimed was used by Jonathan to crush political opposition. At the same time, his overtures to the Communist bloc—in 1982 he allowed the Soviet Union, China and North Korea to establish embassies in Lesotho—and his harboring of South African dissidents infuriated Pretoria. Three years ago South African troops killed 42 people in Maseru during an attack on suspected members of the African National Congress (ANC).
In the end, South Africa’s border blockade and the possibility of more severe countermeasures probably led to the coup. Lesotho’s economy is almost entirely dependent on South Africa and the income sent home by the 140,000 Lesothans employed in that country’s gold mines. Indeed, reportedly fearing the loss of those jobs, Lekhanya last week expelled 60 South African refugees—identified by Pretoria as ANC supporters—to Zambia. Some political observers noted that, by employing economic sanctions for the first time to help unseat an African government, Pretoria had sent a clear signal to its other black-ruled neighbors—including Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana—of the risks involved in harboring ANC rebels.
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