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Atlas Lesotho

Country (long form)
Kingdom of Lesotho
Total Area
11,720.13 sq mi
30,355.00 sq km
2,143,141 (July 2000 est.) note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS
Estimated Population in 2050
Sesotho (southern Sotho), English (official), Zulu, Xhosa
71.3% total, 81.1% male, 62.3% female (1995 est.)
Christian 80%, indigenous beliefs 20%
Life Expectancy
49.78 male, 51.84 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
parliamentary constitutional monarchy
1 loti (L) = 100 lisente
GDP (per capita)
$2,240 (1998 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
86% of resident population engaged in subsistence agriculture; roughly 35% of the active male wage earners work in South Africa
food, beverages, textiles, handicrafts; construction; tourism
corn, wheat, pulses, sorghum, barley; livestock
Arable Land
manufactures 75% (clothing, footwear, road vehicles), wool and mohair, food and live animals (1998)
food; building materials, vehicles, machinery, medicines, petroleum products (1995)
Natural Resources
water, agricultural and grazing land, some diamonds and other minerals
Current Environmental Issues
population pressure forcing settlement in marginal areas results in overgrazing, severe soil erosion, and soil exhaustion; desertification; Highlands Water Project controls, stores, and redirects water to South Africa
Telephones (main lines in use)
18,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
0 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
1 (1999)

People described as Sotho have lived in Southern Africa since at least the 10th century AD, moving throughout the high veld of the region. By the 16th century, the Sotho people had arrived in the area known now as Lesotho, marrying and intermingling with the Khoisan people, and forming small chiefdoms. Extensive trade links were established between the groups, as well as with outside people. Grain and hides, for example, were traded for iron from the Transvaal area.

By the early 19th century white traders were on the scene, exchanging their ever-reliable beads for cattle. In came the Voortrekkers (Boer pioneers), and suddenly the people of the area, now called Basotholand, had to recognise that constant expansion for 300 years was placing extreme pressure on the environment. At the same time, consolidation and expansion of the Zulu state was causing a chain-reaction of violence throughout Southern Africa. Survival by the loosely organised southern Sotho society is attributed to the strong leadership of Moshoeshoe the Great.

The Basotho emerged as a people around 1820 when Moshoeshoe the Great gathered the tribes scattered by Zulu raids and established a stronghold at Butha-Buthe, and later on the mountain of Thaba-Bosiu, about 30km (20mi) from what is now Maseru. By 1840 his people numbered about 40,000. Worried by the Boers, Moshoeshoe the Great enlisted British support, but the British were equally worried about Moshoeshoe, and launched an unsuccessful attack on him. When the English left defeated, the Boers pressed their claims to the land, leading to the 1858 Free State-Basotho War (won by Moshoeshoe) and another in 1865 (in which Moshoeshoe lost much of the western lowlands). In 1868, under increasing pressure from the Boers, Moshoeshoe placed the region under the protection of the British government, but as part of the deal, lost even more land to the Boers.

The British signed over control to the Cape Colony in 1871 - a year after the death of Moshoeshoe the Great - and the new government wasted no time reducing the power of the chiefs. After another war in 1880 the land was again shuttled back to British control. This turned out to be a lucky break for the people of Lesotho. Had they remained part of the Cape Colony, they would have become part of the newly-formed Union of South Africa and, under apartheid, would have become a homeland.

In 1910 the Basotholand National Council - an official advisory body - was formed, and in the mid-1950s it requested internal self-government. Elections were held in 1960 for a Legislative Council made up of elected delegates and appointed chiefs. In 1966, Basotholand gained independence, and its name was changed to Lesotho. When the first Prime Minister, Chief Jonathan, was defeated at the 1970 poll, he suspended the constitution, expelled the king and banned the opposition. This textbook example of African democracy at work led to another staple of modern African politics - a coup - in 1974. The attempt was crushed and Jonathan retained power in the one-party state. When the leader began siding with foreign nations in criticising South African apartheid in 1983, South Africa closed Lesotho's borders, strangling the country. It was a telling reminder of South African power.

On 20 January 1986, Chief Jonathan was overthrown in a coup by Major General JM Lekhanya. Although the South African government has vehemently denied any involvement, the new regime proved more amenable to South African regional security policies. In 1991 Lekhanya was himself overthrown by a group of army officers. King Moshoeshoe II went into exile in London. Following negotiations between the new leadership headed by Major-General Elias Ramaema and Moshoeshoe II, the former monarch returned to the country in August 1992. He did not resume his throne, however.

Ramaema promised a return to civilian rule, and elections for a new National Assembly were held in March 1993. Every one of the 65 seats was won by the Basotho Congress Party. The BCP leader Ntsu Mokhehle became Prime Minister. On two occasions in the first half of 1994, discontent in the army flared up into skirmishes between rebel troops and forces loyal to the government. These events were overshadowed by the dissolution of parliament in August by new King Letsie, Moshoeshoe's son, who cited popular diasstisfaction with the BCP administration and appointed himself head of state for both executive and legislative purposes. The move was widely condemned outside the country, and under heavy diplomatic pressure, Letsie restored constitutional government the following month, and abdicated in favour of Moshoeshoe, five years after being deposed. In late 1995, Moshoeshoe II was killed in a car accident. Letsie succeeded him with little apparent controversy.

The BCP however was split between those who wanted Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle to remain as leader and those who didn't. Mokhehle formed the breakaway Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party and continued to govern. Elections were held in 1998, and many people protested that there had been widespread cheating by the LCD, which won in a landslide. Tensions between the public service and the government became acute, and the military was also split.

In late September 1998, a government gradually losing control called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) treaty partners - Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe - to help restore order. Troops, mainly South African, entered the kingdom. Rebel elements of the Lesotho army put up strong resistance and there was heavy fighting in Maseru. The fighting was soon over but order had broken down and many shops and other businesses in Maseru were looted and torched.

The government had initially agreed to call new elections in 2000, but due to intense political wrangling they were postponed - the early 2001 deadline came and went, and they were finally held in May 2002, with the LCD winning again. Meanwhile, unemployment is estimated at between 40 and 45%.