Why Lesotho's Crisis is SA's Concern

2014-10-05 10:32

The recent crisis in Lesotho has ended with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa concluding his visit with what media reports have termed a 'successful mediation'. The signing of the Maseru Declaration will see the country accede to the mandate set out for it by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for the next two years, under supervision and guidance of political mentors and security forces. There are of course other, perhaps clandestine reasons for our government's eager rush to aide the ailing political body that has become Lesotho, besides the brethren-like, neighbourly facade. Central to these [I've come to spot] is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). This project, consisting of various mega damns, has come to supply a substantial percentage of water to South Africa's industrial and commercial hub - Gauteng. Additionally, it also diverts its reserves into the Free State, which supplements Gauteng (and the rest of the country) as the agricultural bread basket. With Phase two of the Project kicking in earlier this year, reporting of this aspect in the Lesotho crisis seems to have been absent (at least as far as I've witnessed), where the political instability may have an adverse effect on the operation of the 'Katse' and 'Mohale' Damns. The relatively short lived coup attempt may be owing to painful memories endured by the Lesotho Defense Force (LDF) at the hands of the SANDF.

1998 saw the SANDF demonstrate just how far the country was willing to go, as it moved in swiftly to secure the then infantile construction project. This subsequently resulted in numerous LDF (Lesotho Defense force) soldiers as well as some civilians being shot and killed indiscriminately by our special forces. Economic interests regarding the project have been openly expressed by former government officials once before. Thabo Mbeki, was reported telling a high powered investment conference in Cape town on December 1 1998, of the SADC's "commitment to creating a climate conducive to investment". Such investment has come from the logbooks of international monetary organizations like the World Bank and the European Investment Bank. Researcher's like Patrick Bond have covered the LHWP and its various implications with venomous scrutiny, citing their usual predatory and unscrupulous nature, along with former government officials like Kader Asmal (Former Minister of Water and Forestry) who vehemently advocated for its commencement.

Of all the provinces, Gauteng and the Free State have the least capacity with respect to irrigation. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stats reveal relative incapacities in both provinces with respect to others, leaving one to imagine much needed infrastructural overall, or some 'external supplementation'. Being that they're both the industrial and agricultural backbones of our country, the irony is bitter sweet. Industrial and agricultural usage does take up a considerable percentage (two thirds to be exact), but domestic users (the final third) have been footing the majority of the loan repayments through tariff hikes since 1996. Since then, the rates have been steadily rising, but whether repayments are still being transferred to ratepayers up till now is unclear. This leaves wide gaps for interpretation of government's handling and accruing of water in the coming years. Explanations offered by Water departments and state officials don't serve as conclusive guides in this regard either.

The recent water shortages various parts of Gauteng recieved media prominence for a while, until Rand Water restored supplies (and relative faith), attributing the shortages to cable theft, which supposedly incapacitated reservoirs to pump water to recipient areas. With Bedfordview and Primrose's supplies restored first, the prioritizing of certain classes over others is apparent. Businesses and Industry are of course concentrated in such areas, perhaps informing  the state's modus operandi. Fingering cable thieves, even if they do steal cables, still seems like a convenient excuse to divert attention away from other, more glaring controversies. My personal convictions suggest the use of deliberate and vague language by Rand Water, perhaps under the duress of larger and more powerful forces.

Many analysts have also said the province is in the midst of a water crisis, with the latest shortages being but a temperate example of future prospects. Concerning Gauteng especially; rates of migration into the province by scores of people (often for work prospects) every year only compounds pressure on an already stressed aqua-irrigation system, of which some have speculated has not been thoroughly restored since the abolition of Apartheid. Even if remotely true, then it may only serve to entrench public perception as to the misspending of funds by public officials. In fact much of the rates stipulated by Rand Water have been cited by Bond to be transferrals of debt incurred from loans by international monetary funding agencies for the LHWP. From the WB, to the Dept. of Water Affairs, to Rand Water and finally to the end-user, debt seems to be discharged from larger entities down to rate payers. Allegations raised  by Bond as to the aversion of rates paid by valued socio-economic groups, seems to hold some truth, as Pravin Gordhan identified the Free State (home to a substantial number of commercial farmers) as the province incurred with the most debt to water boards. whether it denotes [class] favouritism, mismanagement of water resources, or maladministration, is up for debate.

Lesotho's incumbent Prime Minister Tom Thabane (minus the disgruntled disdained looks at the press conference) had been using ambiguous language leading up to the conference and Ramaphosa's arrival. ISS researcher and writer Gary Van Staden questions the usage and validity of terms like 'security crisis' by the minister and other senior politicians, citing ground situations vastly different to those described by officials. Lesotho by most accounts has been a peaceful nation, but subject to considerable exogenous influences, namely by South African government under the banner of SADC. Sending our Deputy President into a region of considerable interest to our country is to be noted with suspicion. His role as mediator and 'talkshow host' seems recurrent this past year, being sent to Sudan earlier to mediate talks with the President and the breakaway Southern State. With his involvement in Marikana being made abundantly clear, The Vice President's deployment as envoy may have more to do with securing a conducive business/economic environment, than with any type of [supposed] solidarity, as Van Staaden rightly points out.

With talks in Lesotho described as a "success", they could simply be masked under strongarm tactics, engineered by the South African government aimed at ensuring the continuous and uninterrupted flow of water to critical areas. Lesotho's political future does rest somewhat, on SA's economic interests, lest Thabane desists and is subjected to "concomitant action". The SANDF in recent weeks following the attempted coup, have also added weight to this argument, stating that they will "defend the Water Project" if need be. These aforementioned allegations, although [largely] framed around conjecture, I still believe, warrant further investigation aided by some serious thought.

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