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Lesotho – Transition to Independence (Part II)

Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, 1967

Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, 1967

In June of this year, a student doing her Masters in History at the University of  Lesotho asked my father, Spencer (Ted) Nettleton, a series of questions about his thoughts on Lesotho’s transition to Independence in 1966.

During his 19 years in Lesotho, my father organised the Independence Celebrations and, as Secretary to the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, enjoyed a good relationship with Chief Leabua Jonathan.

Here, in part 2 of this series, he reflects on Lesotho’s path to Independence, more than half a century later.

What was your opinion about the installation of Bereng Seeiso as Paramount Chief in 1960 as one of the steps taken towards independence?

I believe that the installation of Constantine Bereng Seeiso as paramount chief in 1960 was in keeping with long-term British policy and was a correct step along the road to eventual independence for Lesotho. In support of this statement let me take you back to the history of British colonisation in Africa. In the 1880s there was a scramble to acquire land in Africa, primarily between the countries of Britain, France, Portugal, Germany and Belgium. The reason was mostly to augment the supply of raw materials to satisfy the huge demand for such commodities generated as a result of the industrial revolution and this occurred primarily in the UK, but also in other west European countries in which industrialisation was growing apace. In aquiring these new lands the British realised they faced a big task in the administration of these newly acquired colonies. In the 1880s, Lord Lugard on behalf of the British government declared that British policy in the newly acquired colonies would be to seek to govern with maximum use made of existing structures of administration. The policy was to seek to build up and strengthen those structures and not to break them down. This policy was largely adhered to by the British authorities. In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan, PM of the UK made his famous ‘Winds of Change’ speech. By this stage, Ghana and Nigeria were already on the road to total independence. The ‘Winds of Change’ speech made it clear that ALL British colonies in Africa were seen as having a right to set themselves on a course to independence with the real expectation that this would not be opposed by the government. In the light of the historical factors which I have set out above, the installation of Bereng as Paramout Chief in 1960 was in keeping with British policy and was seen as a reinforcement of the authority of the Paramount Chief but at the same time a need was seen for an elected parliament to work alongisde the traditional hereditary system of chieftainship.

In your opinion, would you say Lesotho was ready for independence in the 1960s?

In 1960, Lesotho did have the benefit of an unusually literate population. Largely, Lesotho owes a great deal of gratitude to the three main church groups who provided the educational structure and, to their credit, those places of education were not confined to the easily administered lowland schools but also were established in very remote mountain areas. As a district commissioner I did on occasion have to go way out on horseback to these remote areas and it always impressed me that so often there would be a school well attended with the kids beautifully turned out in fresh clothing and all obviously keen to learn. It was not just the churches but the Basotho who worked as teachers under the guidance of those churches that had led to the high and commendable literacy rate in Lesotho.

Lesotho’s high literacy rate in the 1960s

One of the biggest factors in helping the Westminster model of government function efficiently is to have a well-educated electorate. In Lesotho, the literacy was very high but there were still big gaps in the actual educational level. I was very much at the centre of the Africanisation of administrative positions in Lesotho and I did feel at times that the pace moved too quickly and I saw many very capable Basotho government employees struggle and at times fail because they simply did not have the experience and skills and mentoring to enable them to properly handle quite complex administrative portfolios. Having said this, I believe that the path towards independence in Lesotho had at a political level become unstoppable and to try and interfere would inevitably have resulted in upheaval. This particularly applies in the case of the Basotholand Congress Party which was in a great hurry to see Lesotho acquire full independence with a fully independent and controlled Basotho government. So, in summary, I would have thought it better that the pace towards independence proceed a bit more slowly and in a more structured way to ensure that those taking over the high positions had received the necessary tutoring and mentoring to ensure that they succeeded. But it would have been difficult.

The British government attitude by this stage was that they would not oppose independence, in fact they would assist in it happening, provided the Basotho had displayed a reasonable level of ability to properly handle their new responsibilities.

The Second world war had really impoverished the British government and they lacked the resources which had been at their disposal before the war. There were already signs that there would be a strong push from many British colonies to attain independence. This was illustrated early in the piece in 1947 when India was granted its independence. A big factor was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to administer India because of the push from the political leaders in India and also the fact that there was a great deal of turmoil in India at that time because of the conflict between Muslim and Hindu segments of the population. The British at the time of Independence, working with the Indian authorities, gained acceptance of the idea that India would be split into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Of course, this didn’t work entirely smoothly and within a decade thereafter we saw Bangladesh break off and become an independent country and even today there continues to be conflict in Kashmir which is primarily Muslim but for some reason the powers that be decided that, despite this, Kashmir would remain as part of Hindu India. (The reason was that Nehru’s mother was born in Kashmir. She had a great fondness for Kashmir and she was the one who lobbied for Kashmir to remain in India.)

During the period you worked closely with the Prime Minister, what concerns did he raise about the political situation of Lesotho at the time?

In the 1960s in the leadup to Independence, and in the early days after independence, Leabua had continued to try and balance the competing complexities of the relationship with South Africa by convincing not only his own people but also the other African nations of the world that he was not allowing himself to become a stooge of apartheid South Africa.

First Speech to the UN General Assembly

In 1967, I was with chief Leabua when he made his first speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. I was really proud of him on that day because he spoke with total confidence and, I believe, put forward a really convincing attitude which he held towards a very complex situation. Leabua explained to the General Assembly that he had to remain in a working and cordial relationship with SouthAfrica otherwise South Africa could have destroyed Lesotho by closing the borders and freezing the Lesotho percentage of custom duties paid in South Africa which had been agreed to as part of the active union as far back as 1900.

Lesotho’s borders

That source of revenue was very important to Lesotho and the economy of Lesotho would have had felt the effects of not having that cash flow. Also, if the South Africans had closed their borders, foodstuffs for Lesotho, which primarily came from South Africa, would not have been allowed to enter the country and those tens of thousands of Basotho men who did contract work in the mines in South Africa and who remitted considerable funds back to their families in Lesotho, would have been cut off. Lesotho simply could not have continued to function effectively if South Africa had done what they could so easily have done which was simply to close down the borders.

Leabua stood up in the UN and he explained the position to the other United Nations delegates representing their respective countries; countries which had in many cases been highly critical of him because he continued to talk to the South Africans.

Lesotho’s relationship with South Africa

After that speech, there was a far greater understanding amongst African countries of the very difficult situation which faced PM Jonathan. He did make it clear to them that although he was seeking to establish a working relationship with South Africa he would never agree to the opening of an embassy in South Africa unless the Lesotho ambassador was an African. I think this factor did appease certain of his critics. PM Jonathan worked very assiduously to keep good relations with South Africa and I have a wonderful newspaper picture of PM Jonathan being greeted by Dr Voervoed, the PM of South Africa, and the prime promoter of apartheid. The South Africans offered the Basotho government loads of financial assistance which Leabua declined to accept as he felt that this would undermine his position in the eyes of the rest of the world and make him appear to be allowing himself to become subservient to South Africa. He did accept limited assistance in areas of trade expertise and other education situations but, as I said, this was all very limited.

I believe that Lesotho owes a great gratitude to Leabua Jonathan for the manner in which he was able to keep things politically under control in Lesotho at that time and also to retain good relations with South Africa.

As far as the internal political situation was concerned, I adhered to a very strict policy that I would never allow myself to become involved in any domestic political issues in Lesotho and I think this served me well. I stuck to this approach not only in my dealings with Chief Leabua himself but also the members of his cabinet who I saw quite frequently, and when I left Lesotho I left on good terms with both chief Leabua and all of his cabinet.

Chief Leabua had a very slender one-vote majority in the parliament but he managed to maintain a situation where the parliament functioned reasonably well. There was the continual problem of the traditional chieftainship attitude towards politics as opposed to the more politically orientated way of doing things which was favoured by the better educated mainly townspeople.

One of the many newspaper clippings in Ted Nettelton's memoirs relating to Lesotho's Independence.

One of many newspaper clippings in Ted Nettelton’s memoirs relating to Lesotho’s Independence.

Note* 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 week: PM Leabua Jonathan’s use of the Police Mobile Unit (PMU)

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