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South Africa: Blackmail

2 minute read

Food had become scarce, medical supplies were running out, and gasoline was being rationed. When heavily armed troops last week encircled government buildings in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, the country appeared to be tottering on the brink of a coup.

Those tremors proved false. Instead, it seemed that panicked government officials in the tiny, black-ruled, landlocked nation had called out the troops to protect themselves from a feared invasion. The country’s stability, officials said, had been badly shaken by the tactics of South Africa, which completely surrounds Lesotho. Less than two miles away, at the Caledon River Bridge, which stands between the two countries, South African police and military were conducting security searches that severely restricted the daily flow of vital supplies into Lesotho. The beleaguered country appealed to the U.S. and other Western nations to organize an airlift. “We are a hostage country,” said Information Minister Desmond Sixishe. “I wish South Africa would pick on someone its own size.”

South Africa was picking on Lesotho in response to an increasingly violent campaign by the African National Congress, an organization that espouses the overthrow of South Africa’s white minority government. Over the past five weeks, 13 whites have died in explosions that are believed to have been the work of the A.N.C. Accusing Lesotho of allowing the outlawed organization to give “crash courses in the use of explosives” to militants who flee into the country, Foreign Minister Roelof (“Pik”) Botha initiated the slowdown at the border. Lesotho has long angered its neighbor by its open expressions of solidarity with the A.N.C. and its willingness to accept South African refugees.

Geography makes Lesotho particularly vulnerable. Just last month the government of Prime Minister Leabau Jonathan accused South African commandos of sneaking into Maseru and murdering nine people, including six A.N.C. members, in retaliation for the deaths of six whites killed by mines planted in South Africa.

Reacting to the pressure, the Lesotho government agreed last week to begin negotiations on a security pact that the South Africans have sought for the past four years. But even if it leads to a crackdown on antiapartheid activists in Lesotho, the agreement is unlikely to end the violence. Despite similar pacts with Mozambique and Swaziland, the A.N.C. tripled its attacks in South Africa last year.

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