That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Lesotho: State of Mind

There are few terms more evocative in describing a place than “Mountain Kingdom.” I mean, really! Two words is all it takes to conjure enigmatic visions of canyons shaded by endless rows of razor-sharp peaks, fortifying an ancient culture against the relentless globalising whitewash that surrounds. I am a rock – I am an island – I am the Mountain Kingdom.

Yet news comes of rising sentiment within Africa’s tiny Mountain Kingdom, Lesotho, that it should forego its independence and merge into South Africa.

Amazing stuff – our first reaction may be damp-squibbism. Why would any nation of people choose to submerge themselves into the gargantuan state of their neighbours? Why this opposite approach to the romantic militarism of liberation struggles worldwide?

I love Lesotho, and love it more for the complex discussion they’re embarking on: this disentanglement of the hyphen in “nation-state,” unravelling the term into two distinct things. So comes the question: what is it that a nation needs to survive?

Bit of background
Lesotho is a small, landlocked country, completely surrounded by regional giant South Africa, yet utterly distinct, and not through accident. The late 19th C saw widespread scattering of Southern African peoples during what was called the Difaqane – something of a multi-front, multi-participant tumbling-domino-trail of invasion and counter-invasion – resulting in part from the exploits of an expansionist, maize-fuelled, water-needy Zulu army.

The Basotho, once plain-dwelling herders, retreated into a patch of the Maluti Mountains under the leadership of clan chief, and eventual king, Moshoeshoe, and from this forbidding mountain fortress, successfully fended off the Zulu and other competing nations from getting at them. The British helped too by giving the Basotho special protectorate status as Basutholand, which would become the independent state of Lesotho in 1966.

A century spent together in the mountains, surrounded by an apartheid South African regime, bred unique cross-community distinctions in Lesotho. They developed a national dress: peaked wicker hats with broad, sun-shading brims, and colourful blankets bound with a sash. They developed a national folklore around the heroic exploits of Moshoeshoe. They developed national dishes from what they could prepare in the dry valley beds: maize porridge and corn meal at the heart of it.

So what came first – the nation or the state? Political autonomy secured the Basotho people during a time of widespread unrest, and allowed them to forge a common identity and develop a lasting sense of nationhood which isn’t going away. But today, is the state required, or instead could it be actually detrimental, in helping this nation to survive?

Lesotho suffers from the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, where one in three people live with the disease. This has led to huge numbers of AIDS orphans – as it is, 75% of Basotho people are either under 15 years old or over 65. Waged labour is out of sight, and opportunities to work in South African mines have dwindled since the 1990s. A Guardian article featuring Lesotho notes that:

Valleys have been flooded to produce dams to feed Johannesburg, 250 miles away, with water. Yet a third of the country’s wells are dry. Its highly mechanised new diamond plant has failed to absorb tens of thousands of labourers laid off by South African mines. Even its textile industry – which at its height employed 50,000 people – has collapsed. Salaries are low. A factory worker in Bloemfontein earns around 2,400 rands (£213) a month against 700 maloti (£63) in the constantly retrenching Chinese–owned textile plants of Lesotho. The impact of Aids – brought in by the migrant workforce – has ruined the economy. Uniquely in the developing world, Lesotho’s deaths are close to outnumbering its births. A third of the population is HIV positive.

The greatest threat to nationhood isn’t the absence of a state, I’d argue: much worse is death, more death, and diaspora, which is what the Lesotho people face in great number now. This is what threatens to dissolve the bonds of nationhood that have been forged through so much struggle. A hull of a state, as invigourating as its anthem may be, can’t turn this tide around alone.

It seems important to “unpack” (sorry) terms like freedom and independence if they’re going to be actually achieved. Surely real freedom for a people has to be the freedom to live and work together and live the way they aspire to live. Liberty’s in the living…..

An impoverished statelet is hardly the surest route to providing a nation with that liberty – now less so than ever, as global forces conspire in all kinds of ways. Too often, statelets are only ceremonially independent: they rely on bigger neighbours who place demands on trade conditions; they rely on transnational firms with their own prescription for your labour policy; they rely on donor agencies with their own five-year plans to save your souls…. and none of those powers are democratically accountable to the nation.

This de jure sovereignty in the face of de facto dependence is a tricky and uncomfortable question, I suspect, for those who’ve struggled to defend their nation against a neighbouring oppressor. But what do you do when protecting the nation isn’t best done through building archaic state institutions in a world that’s got different kinds of oppressors? I can’t help but think that, if the neighbouring environment has stopped being hostile, then joining up with a boring old broad-based, civic-minded, democratic federation that can support itself might do more in the aim of nation-building than any flag-raising ceremony.

Filed under: Africa, International, Politics, , ,

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June 2010

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