To begin with, in the 1820s, unrest emanating from an epicentre of Zulu expansionism (in a socio-political process called the Difaqane) played havoc with the peace of the Basotho people living on both sides of the Caledon River (which now marks the border between Lesotho and South Africa’s Free State province). Communities were annihilated or broken up and dispersed; and it was largely through the determination of Chief Moshoeshoe of the Moketeli clan that a defensive kingdom was established and maintained at Thaba Bosiu, high in the Lesotho mountains of the great Drakensberg escarpment that dominates the south-eastern seaboard of southern Africa. Even today, Lesotho is the only independent country in the world that lies entirely above 1 000 metres above sea level. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of its land area exceeds 3 000 metres in elevation.
From this mountain fortress, Moshoeshoe was able to weather the storms of the Difaqane, and in the late 1830s the land demands of the Voortrekkers who chose to settle in what is today the Eastern Free State. Finally, Moshoeshoe negotiated with the British for protection against the newly established Boer republic of the Orange Free State. In 1868, Lesotho became a British territory. After Moshoeshoe’s death two years later, the mountainous enclave was annexed by the Cape Colony.
However, insensitive administrative practices and above all an attempt to disarm the Basotho, led to open revolt. Lesotho was excised from the Cape in 1884 and made a British High Commission Territory, a status which persisted until full independence was achieved in 1966. Lesotho’s post independence history has not been without its problems. The country had been established as a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament consisting of a senate and an elected national assembly. Severe inter-party conflicts, elections marred by violence, accusations of electoral fraud, no fewer than six political assassinations, and several military coups d’état have characterised the first 40 years of the mountain kingdom’s existence. For example, in 1998, in spite of internationally observed elections, opposition protests culminated in violence outside the royal palace in Maseru, and a period of unprecedented violence, looting, casualties, the destruction of property, and a mutiny by junior members of the armed forces led to the presence of a SADC task force to restore the authority of the democratically elected government. In 2002, on the other hand, Lesotho experienced its first peaceful election.
In spite of protracted political instability, the country has seen progress in the social and economic spheres. The basis of the economy for at least 50 percent of Lesotho’s 2.4-million people remains agricultural, but is frequently subsidised by migrant labour remittances from South Africa’s mining industry. Nevertheless, general educational levels are improving. A programme of free primary education is now in place; and an estimated 85 percent of the population over 15 years is literate.
The export economy has been boosted by annual revenue from South Africa for water and electricity supplied via the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Lesotho has also become the largest sub-Saharan African exporter of manufactured clothing to the USA. A recently opened ski resort high in the Maluti Mountains is drawing increasing numbers of tourists from neighbouring South Africa.