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By Hadebe Hadebe

A young boy and his horse. Semonkong, Lesotho, 2013. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

Eurocentric historians mordantly portray King Moshoeshoe as a nation builder and a diplomat. This is interesting considering the politics of the time. Europeans in missionaries, Voortrekkers and the English were interested in invasion and conquer in order to install a European state in Southern Africa. The idea that Moshoeshoe may have negotiated his freedom and that of his people could be extremely far-fetched, and this could also be baseless and stretching history.

King Moshoeshoe, like all other chiefs or kings in the 19th century, was under siege by Europeans who wanted land and livestock. The insistence that he was a diplomat and nation-builder could be taking things a little too far, considering the misfortunes that continue to haunt ‘his’ people and Lesotho to this day. The fact is that BaSotho benefited nothing but pain and misery from their diplomatic escapades because Europeans had no time to negotiate anything with African heathens and savages. Their only interest was to exploit and extract as much economic value as possible in their colonial conquest. So, the elimination of this political reality is not only ahistorical but it is extremely Eurocentric. Hence, the portrait of King Moshoeshoe in history books is contestable and painful at the same time.

He represents an image of a defeated people who continue to suffer to this day like all other vanquished African nations. The point is that the general understanding of what may have happened during all those years is told from the perspective of a white man who, in almost all circumstances, wants to pretend that he brought normalcy to our shores. The tags of “visionary” and “diplomat” that are often associated with Moshoeshoe are a white lie. The truth is that the situation of Lesotho and King Moshoeshoe is too complicated to be simplified in glorious superlatives. Thus, a new perspective on historiography of the Lesotho and the entire region needs to be re-told and also placed within a specific context.

First and foremost, white people – irrespective of whether it was the Boers or the British – violently took away lands and belongings from Africans; they pushed Moshoeshoe and others into the mountains to clear lands for commerce, agriculture, and mining. The reason why the Orange Vrystaat had less people, and is still like that to this day, emanates from the two myths: mfecane/difaqane and terra nullius (empty lands). Europeans use these myths/falsehoods to justify colonialism and atrocities they committed against Africans. Moshoeshoe was also not spared from the violence and the attacks by the Voortrekkers first and later the English. He was cornered and defeated when the British took advantage of his desperate situation to pull him on to their side. It was the horrible and heartless Cape Governor Sir George Grey who, having already committed crimes in southern Cape such as the annihilation of the San groups, the engineering of the Nongqawuse debacle and the murder of King Hintsa (through Benjamin D’Urban), turned Moshoeshoe into a British vassal by promising him protection from the Voortrekkers, and the Griqua armies of Adam Kok III.

The Cape Colony facilitated the Napier Treaty, signed in 1843 between Moshoeshoe and the Griquas but the lands along the Caledon River Valley were lost for good. That is how Basutoland came into being in 1870 as an outpost of the British in their forays into the north which included fights with Boers and Africans. BaSutoland became an island in a sea of skirmish. BaSutoland’s usefulness came, among many incidents, when the English were chasing my great-great grandfather Inkosi Langalibalele (Ah, Bhungane!) of the AmaHlubi kingdom after his rebellion in the Natal Colony.

Owing to long family and neighbourly relations and high mountains, he fled Natal across the Maluti to seek refuge among his cousins (Moshoeshoe and his people) in BaSutoland. Unknown to him, BaSutoland was under “the protection” of the Cape Colony. The Natal and Cape colonies sent a ‘raw call’ for the arrest of Langalibalele. Indeed, he was handed in by chief Molapo. Langalibalele served time in Robben Island and exile. This incident and others increased BaSutoland’s importance in the eyes of the British, hence all the supposedly positive stories about Moshoeshoe’s legacy and his impeccable diplomatic skills. Arguably, that is how he avoided prison, exile and death throughout his reign which maximised on the cooperation with the English, admittedly out of desperation.

He had no incentive to fight but chose to survive when all his neighbours such as Segonyela, Langalibalele and others were being butchered. Nonetheless, King Moshoeshoe is in a way an inverse of King Shaka of the Zulu kingdom who is sold as a brutal monster which built its nation by force, whereas Moshoeshoe is portrayed as a refined leader who built a nation through diplomacy. This is a clear divide and rule strategy by the Europeans. The actual occurrences that assisted the British create the Sotho and Zulu mega-tribes remain hidden in the annals of history. Neither Shaka nor Moshoeshoe established the mega-tribes which are today called the Zulu and Sotho, but British colonialism did. What is common in the building of the Zulu and Sotho mega-tribes is that the British emerged as overall winners. They displaced people, dispossessed lands, and confiscated livestock as well as owned mines and entrenched the Westphalian state system, which granted Lesotho pseudo-independence and a country that would never build a sustainable economy.

Semonkong, Lesotho. 2013. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

The Westphalian state system also displaced the Zulu and Sotho peoples from their lands and turned them into slaves whose labour was exploited in the making of the modern South African economy. This situation continues to this day. This status has not changed: Lesotho remains a source for cheap labour, and occurrence that traces its roots after the British introduced the Hut Tax in the 1870s to force BaSotho men to work in the newly established diamond fields in Kimberley. The long-term consequence of this is that Lesotho today basically has no economy. Over 80% of the GDP is not locally generated but comes from external sources including remittances, foreign aid, and income from the generous SACU revenue sharing scheme. Looking at Lesotho’s political economy to date, it is not different from other native reserves in rural South Africa like Transkei and rural Bophuthatswana.

Young men, and of late women, move from the mountains to seek livelihood in white settlements in South Africa. The mining industry and illegal mining bring the much-needed incomes to Lesotho to this day. The historical injustices continue to shape the character of Lesotho as nothing but a land whose people have faced exploitation and humiliation in the hands of Europeans. Besides a faltering government that changes faster than the speed of light, there is no correlation between what Lesotho is and Moshoeshoe’s prowess as a “smart” leader. If he was indeed a shrewd diplomat, the King would have cut a better deal for his people such as return of dispossessed fertile lands along the Senqu and Caledon Rivers and access to water and other resources. The truth is, Moshoeshoe was given a rock that is cold and unable to sustain itself economically like all rural areas where Africans live in South Africa. Diplomacy is difficult to practice among non-equals. Small states like Lesotho understand this pain and reality which defines the international system which favours large, wealthier players.

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