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Basutoland: 1868-1966

After being annexed by Britain in 1868 as Basutoland, Moshoeshoe's kingdom is transferred in 1871 to the administrative control of the Cape Colony. The Sotho tribes profoundly resent this development, about which they have not been consulted, and the 1870s are a time of increasing unrest in the region. This culminates in the Gun War of 1880, so called because it begins with an attempt by the administration to disarm the tribesmen.

The Sotho score several notable successes against the Cape military (most notably an ambush at Qalabani in 1880). An uneasy truce in 1881 does little to resolve the conflict.


Wearying of its responsiblities, the Cape government persuades the British to accept Basutoland back as a protectorate in 1884. After the union of South Africa, in 1910, there is strong and successful pressure within Basutoland to prevent the British ceding the territory to the new republic.

Economically Basutoland thrives at first on the export of grain to the flourishing mining regions of South Africa. But increasingly it is Basutoland's own manpower which needs to be exported, to provide migrant labour in the mines. Thus the landlocked territory becomes almost entirely dependent on the powerful nation which surrounds it.


The British high commissioners leave largely intact the tribal structures of the Sotho, among whom many minor chiefs owe allegiance to a single paramount chief (a role invariably filled by a descendant of Moshoeshoe).

During the 1950s, with internal self-government in prospect, two political parties are formed - the left-wing Basutoland Congress Party and the more traditional Basutoland National Party, headed by Chief Leabua Jonathan. The BNP defeats the BCP by a narrow margin in the region's first elections, in 1965. The following year Basutoland becomes independent, as Lesotho. Chief Jonathan is prime minister. The paramount chief Moshoeshoe II is head of state.


Independence: from1966

The early years of independence are characterized by continuing tension over the nature of Lesotho's constitutional monarchy. In the very first year, 1966, Moshoeshoe II agitates for greater powers. He is placed under house arrest by Chief Jonathan. Over the coming decades Moshoeshoe is frequently arrested or in exile, but he has a talent for bouncing back. He is still head of state when he is killed in a car crash in 1995.

Chief Jonathan has an almost equally stormy career. Suspending the constitution when the Basutoland Congress Party wins the first post-independence elections, in 1970, he has to resort to repressive measures to put down the resulting unrest.


Chief Jonathan's political stance (one of profound hostility to South Africa) wins him much international approval as a virtuous David confronting the evil Goliath. But it also brings many political refugees across his border and a correspondingly aggressive response from South Africa, with frequent military raids and border closures.

A virtual blockade in 1986 causes a pro-South African faction in Lesotho to depose Jonathan. The new government, a military council acknowledging Moshoeshoe as head of state, makes the necessary concessions to South Africa and gets the blockade lifted. Many refugees are expelled. Political activity is banned.


In 1991, after another military coup, the new junta promises to introduce a democratic constitution. A general election in 1993 at last brings the Basutoland Congress Party to power in a landslide victory (winning all 65 seats in the national assembly). Moshoeshoe II and his eldest son, Letsie III, alternate on the throne during this troubled period as they side with rival factions.

Internal disputes within the BCP disrupt the second half of the 1990s, when there is at last a friendly democratic government in South Africa.


In 1996 a dissident faction within the BCP tries to oust its leader, the prime minister Ntsu Mokhele, on the grounds that he is incompetent and at seventy-eight too old for office. His response is to form a new party of his loyal supporters, calling it the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, and to remain in office as leader of the majority.

For elections in 1998 Mokhele's place is taken by his former deputy prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili. Under his guidance the new party is almost as overwhelmingly successful as its predecessor five years previously. The LCD wins seventy-eight of the eighty seats in an expanded national assembly.


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