Mourning for a town that didn't have
Zanemvula (Zakes) Mda has happy memories of growing up among a community of South African exiles and Lesotho locals in the small town of Mafeteng. Last week he returned to find a smouldering ruin
Chris Hani used to frequent this restaurant. His father, known to us only as Ntate Hani, owned it in partnership with a former Cape Town trade unionist, Elizabeth Mafikeng, lovingly known as Fiks by everyone in this small Lesotho town of Mafeteng, about 80km south of Maseru.
The restaurant used to be a rendezvous of South African exiles of all political shades.
They came, and drank tea, and talked of the developments “back home”. Refugees from different political parties all lived together in harmony in Mafeteng. There were no refugee camps in Lesotho. Exiles were integrated into the society and carried on with the business of making a living like everyone else. Many of them joined the commercial world and established shops, cafs and restaurants. Ntate Hani’s restaurant was one such business.
Today I am standing in front of Hani’s little restaurant with Sechaba Kalake, another son of an exile. The owners returned to South Africa just before liberation. The building is in ruins. But then the whole town is in smouldering ruins. Kalake tells me of the rampaging mobs that descended upon the town one morning, setting every building that they thought belonged to South Africans, Indians and Chinese alight. The damage has to be seen to be believed. The media has focused on Maseru. There is more devastation here.
I stand in silence, mourning for a town that didn’t have to die such a meaningless death. Kalake is just stern- faced. To him the loss is much more personal. His family business complex, housing shops and a thriving bar, is a heap of ashes. It is all that is left of the toil of his father, Tsolo Kalake.
Before he came to Lesotho, Tsolo Kalake used to run a fruit and grocery shop in Central Western Jabavu, Johannesburg. Then in 1967 he was arrested and sentenced to seven years on Robben Island for furthering the aims of a banned organisation. His family was forced to leave South Africa and took refuge in Mafeteng where they opened a new business.
When Kalake was released from Robben Island he joined his family in Lesotho where he lived until his death in 1981. The shopping complex continued as a means of livelihood for Sechaba Kalake’s mother, brothers and sisters. Now that it is nothing but a pile of burnt-out rubbish, none of them know how they will make ends meet.
The ruins bring memories of the past flooding in to my head. Who can blame me? I spent part of my youth in this town. Even when I had flown the coop and was living in the United States and Europe, I kept on coming back to this town because my parents lived here. It was home. It is still home, for my mother lives in this town. When the Hanis and the Mafikengs chose to go back home after liberation, she decided to stay. She was too old and ailing to start a new life among strangers in South Africa after more than 30 years of exile in Lesotho. After all, her husband’s grave is in Mafeteng.
My father, AP Mda, a former national president of the African National Congress Youth League and later the “founding spirit” of the Africanist movement, came to Mafeteng as a refugee in 1963. The following year the rest of the family followed him into exile. But we knew we were not going to a strange land. We had relatives who had lived in that country for many generations. My great-great-grandfather, a traditional doctor called Mhlontlo, and a large group of his followers, took refuge in Lesotho in the mid-1800s after he killed a colonial magistrate in Qumbu, Transkei.
He was received and protected by Chief Moorosi of the Baphuthi clan. That is why today there is a whole village of the Mdas up in the Lesotho mountains of Malibamatso, and another one in Taung in the Mohale’s Hoek district. Although my grandfather later drifted back into South Africa, Lesotho remained the land of my forebears.
Perhaps it is because of this history that I have become a sentimental old fool about this place. My youth here was a rich one in the community of both exiles and locals. And there was never any difference between the two. We were one people.
Chris Hani was older than us. We called him Bra Thembi. While we were grappling with high school in the late 1960s, he was already dealing with important political issues in Maseru, or in places that we did not know. But often he came back to visit his father in Mafeteng. And sometimes when he was here he helped me with my Latin, especially the declensions and conjugations which I really loathed. Or he met with my father and they debated political strategies in their war against apartheid South Africa.
Yes, this restaurant used to be a hub of activity. Why, I even fell in love with one of Mafikeng’s numerous daughters at this restaurant.
My father, a lawyer by profession, used Ntate Hani’s restaurant as his place of refuge, especially when he was hiding from his clients who wanted to consult with him at odd hours. The restaurant became his second office. I remember him very well, and all the interesting people who used to gather here, as I stand among the smouldering ruins.
What possessed the people of Mafeteng to destroy their own town this way? Sechaba Kalake tells me that they were enraged by South Africa’s invasion of Lesotho. People in this town insist on referring to it as an “invasion” rather than an “intervention”. They say that the South Africans came in to take the side of Pakalitha Mosisili’s government in a domestic political conflict.
“We did not see this as a peacekeeping force,” says Kalake. “A peacekeeping force never comes unannounced in the early hours of the morning. Do you think if the Lesotho Defence Force [LDF] was informed officially that a peacekeeping force would be coming into the country they would have shot at it? Peacekeeping forces are identifiable as such, and the people of the country know of their presence. The armoured vehicles and planes of the United Nations peacekeeping forces, for instance, have UN written in bold and no enemy soldier dares shoot at them. No, we are not children. We know the difference between an invading force and a peacekeeping force.”
He further asserts that the LDF are trained soldiers. If an unknown force came into the country with tanks and fighter planes at 5am it would have been a dereliction of duty if they had not fired back - especially because they did not know what the mission of the invading force was.
When the invaders came, the people felt angry and helpless. They had been told the previous day that there had been a breakthrough in the negotiations that were being chaired by the South African Minister of Safety and Security, Sydney Mufamadi. All the parties had agreed to meet at 11am that morning at a common venue to continue the negotiations. Mufamadi himself announced on radio stations that very morning of the raid that the negotiations were at last bearing fruit.
He actually used the word “success” to describe them. He said he was preparing himself to fly to Maseru to continue to facilitate the negotiations that morning. He was obviously not aware that the raid into Maseru had scuppered the whole effort.
There were guffaws when the same Mufamadi stated in a television interview that the raid into Lesotho was planned as early as September 11, long before Mosisili’s letter to the South African government asking for assistance, and long before the Langa report was delivered in Maseru. Mufamadi was therefore acting in bad faith. While he pretended to be assisting the negotiation process, he knew that, in any event, there was going to be a raid.
When the South African National Defence Force invaded Maseru, there were reverberations of anger in Mafeteng. The town folk admit that there were dire political problems in the country. Some of those who insist that the elections were rigged by the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) also claim that the opposition leaders are a motley bunch of opportunists with a chequered past, who are acting more out of self-interest than national interest. But there is a strong feeling that a solution could have been reached through negotiations.
They agree with Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who seems to be the only moral leader left in South Africa, that South Africa should be exporting what it is really good at, namely the art of reaching negotiated settlements, rather than gunboat diplomacy.
The destruction of Mafeteng really began two days after the raid of Maseru. When the South African forces were bombarding Makoanyane, people went berserk. They had no guns with which to fight the South African soldiers. So they targeted South African-owned businesses. People came in buses from outlying districts and joined in the general looting that was taking place. Buses and cars were hijacked and used to transport looters to various points of the town where the targeted businesses were located.
These wild activities, according to Kalake, were spontaneous. He says, “The opposition leaders did not incite the people. The leaders went into hiding as soon as they heard that the South African army had marched into Maseru to prop up the Mosisili government. People were leaderless and they did wild things.”
But not every opposition leader went into hiding. It is a fact that political leaders in Lesotho are able to control their supporters. They turned a blind eye to the lawlessness because it demonstrated the people’s opposition to the invasion. At the time, no one seemed to care that they were cutting their noses to spite their faces.
Listening to Kalake, it struck me that since my arrival in Mafeteng the previous day, and in all my discussions with more than 100 people, I had not heard a single mention of the Botswana troops, or even of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) forces. Everyone talks of South African soldiers. Well, everyone except the soldier at the border post who assured me, “Don’t worry. You’ll be safe. SADC soldiers will look after you.”
The looting and burning frenzy went on for hours. The police were powerless. Some claim that they had been disarmed by renegade Lesotho soldiers who were escaping southwards away from the burning Maseru and the firepower of the South African troops.
The looters had a field day. But there was method in their madness. They left all the businesses that were owned and operated by Basotho intact. Ben Maphathe’s fruit and vegetable shop was not touched. So were Lefa Ntsike’s chicken wholesalers and Bitsang Theoane’s restaurant and butchery, even though these businesses are in the middle of the central business district that is now in ashes.
Not only South African businesses suffered. Chinese and Indian businessmen and women were victimised with the rising xenophobia in Mafeteng. But this went beyond xenophobia because most of the Indian traders are not foreigners but citizens of Lesotho, who have lived in that country for generations. This was therefore racism, which also manifested itself when a huge shopping complex owned and operated by the Jandrell family, who are white and have traded in Lesotho for many generations, was looted and set alight.
Kalake says that Basotho people have a deep-rooted anger against the Chinese treatment of Basotho workers. Hence the Chinese and other Asians, including Basotho of Indian ancestry, are always victims whenever there is political upheaval in Lesotho, which is never of their making at all.
The only Basotho businesspeople who lost millions are those who had hired out their property to South African concerns or to Indians and Chinese. Dr KT Maphathe, for instance, lost a whole shopping centre which housed well-known South African clothing stores, supermarkets and fast-food outlets - incidentally, one of them a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise owned by a Mosotho businessman.
Kalake’s family business complex was also lost because most of it was rented to Indians. It amazes me that even though his family has suffered so much loss, he refuses to blame the rampaging crowds. He puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of South Africa. He says that the riots happened as a reaction to the invasion - which was not necessary in the first place.
Kalake dismisses as utter nonsense Mufamadi’s claim that the looting in Lesotho began long before the SADC troops moved into the country. He says that even though opposition supporters had closed down government offices through their mass action and were hijacking government cars and parking them at the palace, not a single window was broken anywhere. Business was left alone to operate normally.
Another thing that amazes me as I walk around the town is that people have no regrets about burning the place down. They see it as part of the struggle against the South African invaders. Yet, 97% of the jobs in this town have been lost because almost all the private sector is gone. Only the two hotels in town, a few shops owned by Basotho and a parastatal pharmaceutical factory remain.
People have to buy their food in Wepener. Many cannot afford the trip to Wepener, where prices have sky-rocketed, with the Free State traders taking advantage of the situation. A cylinder of gas that used to cost R63 only a few weeks ago, now costs R200.
It is going to be a bleak Christmas for many people in Mafeteng. The residents now fear that very soon hungry mobs will begin to raid the homes of those they think are better off. Bulara, an owner of a lucrative tavern, tells me: “You see all these South African tanks that are patrolling the streets of Mafeteng? At night they disappear and the streets are left unprotected. We do not know where they go ... perhaps to their camp in Wepener. We fear that soon hungry mobs will rule the night. No one sleeps anymore in this town.”
There is indeed a section of the population of Mafeteng who feel that South African soldiers should stay for a while until the structures of law and order have been restored, because, if they leave now, there will be a lawless situation where only the fittest will survive. Others say that a hungry man will not be stopped by South African guns. The military presence will never protect each and every house in Lesotho. The only thing that will restore stability is a political settlement that is deemed to be just by all the parties involved.
“Nelson Mandela should have learnt that military intervention has never brought stability anywhere in Africa,” Kalake says. “The Americans learnt that the hard way in Somalia. South Africa should shape up its foreign policy and not emulate the worst traits of American policy.”
A political settlement that does not include a general amnesty for the LDF members who mutinied, will not work. Right now they have taken to the mountains and have established themselves into a guerrilla force. They feel that handing themselves in is tantamount to suicide.
They are now gearing themselves for a protracted war. They have the capacity to create havoc for civilian populations in Lesotho and on the Free State dorpies and farms. And now the hungry youths of Mafeteng are talking of climbing the mountains to join them. And so are the former members of the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), some of whose members were trained in Libya under the auspices of the Pan Africanist Congress, while others were trained by the apartheid government of South Africa.
There are many LLA members who are still disgruntled because Ntsu Mokhehle’s Basutoland Congress Party, the section that broke away and later became the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, refused to incorporate them into the LDF. Instead, Mokhehle, their erstwhile commander, declared that they were disbanded without any formal demobilisation.
“Only a fool will ignore the threat posed by the remnants of the LLA, who are likely to join the renegade LDF soldiers and form a formidable guerrilla force in the mountains,” says Kalake. “As a reward for deserting a negotiated political settlement and opting for a military solution, South Africa may taste in Lesotho what the Soviet Union tasted in Afghanistan.”
As I drive back to the comforts of my suburban home in Johannesburg, with my ailing mother in the back of the car, the words of an angry Mosotho woman echo in my ears: “South Africa of all countries, to whom we have given refuge all these years, is the country that invades us today!”
I cannot help wondering what will happen to this proud kingdom. The country has known many coups. But all of them were bloodless. The only time a great number of Basotho have been killed in political upheavals was when the apartheid forces invaded the country in the dead of night, leaving dead South African exiles and innocent Basotho civilians in their wake.
With more than 100 people dead, and at least three towns razed to the ground, this is the biggest calamity the country has suffered since the colonial wars of the last century.
The 10% economic growth that Lesotho was enjoying recently - one of the fastest- growing economies in the world - will surely be reversed, and the brain drain will be exacerbated. Many people are not aware that some of the best brains that run various sectors of South African life are from Lesotho.