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Lesotho – Transition to Independence – Part III

LesothoFrom his home in South Australia’s Clare Valley, Spencer (Ted) Nettelton, former Secretary to Lesotho’s first Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan, reflects on the country’s transition to Independence, in 1966, as he answers questions put to him by Mahahabe Selebalo, currently pursuing a Masters in History at the National University of Lesotho.

What is your opinion of Jonathan’s use of the Police Mobile Unit (PMU)?

Jonathan staged his coup in January 1970 and by then I’d been out of Lesotho for about 8 months so I was not directly on the scene. Jonathan felt strongly enough to arrest all the opposition politicians when he knew that he had lost the election, and he must have taken into account the fact that there could have been a big backlash with violence staged by mainly the BCP. Jonathan would also have known that he had the complete loyalty of the Police Mobile Unit, commanded by Freddy Roach, who were indeed a formidable and highly trained group of men. I believe those likely to have caused trouble would have feared them and thought twice before attempting to interfere.

I believe that Chief Jonathan’s coup was constitutionally reprehensible and it went against all the values which he expressed to me over quite a number of years. However, reflecting upon this, many years later, I could not help finding myself harbouring a rather contentious view that in the longer-term Jonathan’s coup was actually in the best interests of Lesotho. If Ntso Mokhehle had become PM of Lesotho at that stage the reaction of South Africa to a very openly and fairly militant anti-white PM of Lesotho could have led to all sorts of unpalatable consequences.

Also, the 1960s were a time when both Russia and China were pouring money into Africa. The BCP was being supported by Russian funds and the Marematlou was being supported by Chinese funds. There was great animosity amongst many Africans towards South Africa and this was quite understandable. I have no doubt at all that Lesotho potentially would have been used as a staging post by subversive African units from South Africa, which would not have been not opposed by Mokhehle, and these sabotage groups would then have flitted across the border back into Lesotho, an independent country, where South African authorities would not have had the right to make arrests. This potentially would have not gone down well amongst the more extreme elements of the South African government and might well have led to the complete closing down of all movement between South Africa and Lesotho and the consequences would have been dire. The fact that Leabua Jonathan, in a very unconstitutional manner, and in a way that was very unfair to certain people, but which achieved continued harmony between South Africa and Lesotho, was very much in the interests of the general Basutoland population. I know in saying that I’m being very controversial but if you analyse what I’ve said I think there’s a lot of logic in my thinking.

After living in Lesotho for more than ten years, what is your opinion on Lesotho’s adoption of the Westminster model of government? Do you think the Basotho were ready for a constitutional Monarch?

Lesotho Commemorative mug

On the left is my Lesotho Independence Commemorative Mug. Much of the insignia of the commemorative items to mark the occasion had to be changed so that the horses tails were rampant.


In so many countries where the Westminster system has been used it has not worked and in those cases where it didn’t work the reasons often were that those countries traditionally worked on a tribal structure with warlords really having the power to declare what would happen and how things would be done. In those situations, I do not think the Westminster system is well suited but in the case of Lesotho, there was the great advantage of it being one nation, one language, one paramount chief. Also, they were a people reasonably well educated and therefore at a level where the complexities of a Westminster system, although not completely understood, would have been well enough understood to work. I believe that the Basotho were ready for constitutional monarchy — ie, in hindsight, one reflects what did, in fact, happen in Lesotho in the 60s and 70s. It was inevitable that there would be some problems between the parliament which naturally wished to have full use of its authority as granted to it in the constitution, and then on the other side, there was the traditional chieftainship which was entirely hereditary and gave a great deal of power to the paramount chief. I can fully understand that the paramount chief, in this case, King Moshoeshoe II, did not want to lose some of his authority and he resisted it. As things turned out, the inevitable result was that the elected parliament won the day and the situation seems to have settled down politically after those initial upheavals in sorting out the problems between the parliament and the constitutional monarch. Yes, I do believe that the use of the Westminster system in Lesotho had more chance of working satisfactorily to the benefit of the populace.

Winston Churchill once said, the Westminster system is a bloody awful system but no one has ever come up with one which is, in fact, better.

[End of Interview]

Ted Nettelton

Ted Nettelton, in the Clare Valley, South Australia



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