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Lesotho – the transition to Independence

As I get closer to releasing my Lesotho-set novel, Diamond Mountain, and my father works on final edits for the volume of his memoirs concerning his career in Lesotho in the 1950s and 60s, I’m launching a weekly series of blog posts related to the political situation in Lesotho in the years leading up to, and following its Independence in 1966.

Independence Celebrations, From l-r/ King Moshoeshoe II, Sir Alexander Giles, Princess Marina representing the queen, chief Leabua Jonathan, Lesotho PM

Independence Celebrations. L-R: King Moshoeshoe II, Sir Alexander Giles, Princess Marina representing the queen, chief Leabua Jonathan, Lesotho PM

Many thanks to Ted (Spencer) Nettelton, my father, for answering a series of questions put to him on his perspective (as a District Commissioner in the 1950s and, later, Secretary to Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan) regarding Lesotho’s administrative structure and the relationship between Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan and King Moshoeshoe II before and after Lesotho Independence in 1966.

How would you describe the working relationship between the District Commissioners and the chiefs?

Lesotho, for administration purposes, was divided into nine districts, each with a District Commissioner in charge. Within each district, there were between three and five ward chiefs. Each had traditional duty responsibility for assisting and administering those people under their control. The DC was the representative of the British Government of that district and he had the final authority

On the whole, the relationship was cordial, though inevitably there was some resentment from a few chiefs. But generally, chiefs accepted the model. The chiefs realised the newly educated and politically orientated segment of the community were likely to increasingly undermine their authority. The DC and the government as a whole was, in the main, on the side of the chiefs. The chiefs realised this and they knew they could depend upon the DC and the government authorities to safeguard their position as chief.

When I left Lesotho in 1969 it had become a contest between the townspeople and the rural people. The rural people still tended to respect and pay attention to the chiefs in their area whereas the town people looked more and more towards the politically vocal members of the community in the towns.

I say, quite candidly, that we had some useless District Commissioners. This also applied to the chiefs. There were some very good chiefs and, just like the DCs, there were some useless chiefs. One had to bear in mind that the chieftainship was a hereditary system and the chiefs were not all educated to a level where they found it easy to embrace an administrative capability which was becoming increasingly more important.

How would you describe the relationship between Leabua Jonathan and King Moshoeshoe II during your tenure as the Prime Minister’s Secretary?

Both Leabua and the king were polite and caring people. Neither of them, I believe, would have enjoyed conflict which is so enjoyed by some members of the human race. Leabua was in favour of a constitution which embraced the Westminster model provided for by a constitutional monarch; and that’s what had been agreed to. Parliament had been elected in accordance with the constitution and in the same manner the constitution provided for a Head of State with restricted powers and that’s what it was his duty to ensure was put in place.

So the PM  was acting in accordance with what had been agreed to. Having said that, it stands to reason that Leabua wanted to retain his full authority as the PM and would not have wanted to allow part of that authority to be ceded to someone else, i.e, the king. The constitution, as agreed to, supported Leabua’s thinking in this matter. For all his mild manner, and engaging smile, Leabua was also a man with ambition both for himself and his people. The new constitution was a departure from the traditional chieftainship model which would have allowed the king to be undisputed authority in Lesotho. In earlier times this would have been the case. It is understandable that the king found it hard to cede all those traditional powers to a newly formed political system.

Leabua Jonathan, a self-educated man

Leabua, for all that he’d only gone as far as Standard 7, was a man who read prolifically and during my time as his Secretary I was continually surprised at his broad knowledge, particularly in issues of politics, both at home and abroad. I think I would be safe, 50 years later, to divulge the fact that he openly admitted to me that he much preferred working with a British Conservative government than with a Labour government.

The founding of Lesotho – a brief history

To go back in history, Chief Moshoeshoe (1786 – 1870) was an exceptional man by all standards. He was the rock upon which the Lesotho nation was founded and through his wisdom and personality, he was able to bring all the scattered groups of Basotho spread around the Orange Free State into a single nation. Some of his edicts show incredible insight into the politics of his era at that time. In that period he issued edicts prohibiting the sale of alcohol in Lesotho and declared Lebola (bride price) illegal. He persuaded his people that the age of cannibalism was now dead and gone. He invited missionaries to come to Lesotho for the main reason that he saw the absolute necessity for his people to learn to read and write. He made it clear to the missionaries that they were free to conduct their religious services but they were to understand that no white person would ever own land in Lesotho.

Moshoeshoe I and Constantine Bereng Seeiso (Moshoeshoe II)

There are many contrasts between Moshoeshoe I and Constantine Bereng Seeiso (Moshoeshoe II)  when he was installed as the Paramount Chief Elect in 1960. Moshoeshoe II was a man who had attended a very well known English school called Ampleforth in the UK for the last few years of his schooling before he went on to do a degree at Oxford University. He could, therefore, boast a very select education by English traditional standards. This, obviously, was a huge contrast to Moshoeshoe I.

When I first met King Moshoeshoe II in about 1960 he was a man who was still very young and who tended to be a bit retiring and hesitant, which was quite understandable. I did feel that the British administration treated him rather as if he was this new boy who had to be tutored towards a better understanding of what his role was as the new leader of the nation was.

King Moshoeshoe II, I always felt, tended to be a bit isolated at his place of residence at Matsieng. I believe it would have been better if he had been living in Maseru right in the centre of government administration. As I’ve stated earlier when I started answering this question I stressed that both Leabua and Moshoeshoe II were polite and caring people and that neither would have enjoyed conflict. However, both of them were thrust into a situation where Leabua correctly had to defend the implementation of the constitution in accordance with the way in which it had been approved, whereas the king naturally resisted what he saw as the erosion of the traditional powers of the paramount chief. I can understand both of them feeling that their approach to this issue was correct but the way things were turning out it was inevitable that there would be conflict.

Pre-independence Conflict

In the lead-up to the Independence celebrations in 1966, I kept most of the newspaper articles which appeared in the Johannesburg Star and the Bloemfontein Friend newspapers. In regard to this particular matter there’s an article which appeared in the Star in which the king on the day before the independence celebrations stated to the Star newspaper that he would refuse to accept the new constitution. The day after the independence celebrations there is a delightful picture of Leabua and the king laughing together after the king had, without any display of resentment, accepted the new constitutional papers given to him by the queen’s representative at midnight.

As an interesting sideline, on Independence night I was in the same party as Princess Marina who was representing the queen and who was given the responsibility of handing over the new documents of authority for Lesotho to divorce itself from the British authorities and to become an independent country. In the hour before midnight there was still great uncertainty as to whether the king was going to accept the new constitutional documents granting independence to Lesotho. I well remember Princess Marina turning to us and saying, “Well, if he won’t accept these papers, I’m going to simply shove them into his arms and say there ‘you are, you go and sort out the matter yourself’.” As it turned out the king was most gracious at the Independence Celebrations and it all went off smoothly.

Judging by that picture in the Star, the king and Leabua were on quite amicable terms the day after Independence but things did again deteriorate further down the track and I can speak with no authority on those issues as I had by that time left Lesotho.

[End of part 1 of this interview]

Note: This series of newspaper articles will appear in Ted Nettelton’s memoirs. 

Finally, many thanks to Mahahabe Selebalo, currently pursuing a Masters in History at the National University of Lesotho, for the insightful questions, above, that she put to my father.

Next Thursday, November 30: The installation of Bereng Seeiso as Paramount Chief in 1960 and “Was Lesotho ready for Independence?” 

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