A DIPLOMATIC row has erupted between Lesotho and South Africa over the ill-treatment of King Letsie 111 by overzealous officials at the Maseru border post.
South Africa’s recently appointed Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, has since announced she would soon visit Lesotho to personally apologize to King Letsie over the “harassment and embarrassment” inflicted upon him by South African immigration officials during His Majesty’s return trip from Durban.
What has miffed Lesotho most, according to Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations Lesego Makgothi, is that former South African President Jacob Zuma and his administration ignored the matter after Lesotho lodged an official protest.
Narrating the King’s ordeal at the hands of the South African border police, Mr Makgothi said the King’s motorcade was stopped and searched early last month by the South African Police Service (SAPS) at the Maseru Border Gate despite standing protocol that this should never. During the search, the SAPS officials demanded permits for guns and ammunition carried by the King’s bodyguards.
Mr Makgothi said the stop and search exercise was carried out despite the fact that a protocol officer assigned to His Majesty had applied and been granted clearance for the bodyguards’ guns and ammunition five hours before departure to Durban.
The Minister said His Majesty, the prime minister and his deputy are required to file for clearance two to four hours before departing Lesotho to avoid being stopped and searched by South African police.
He said His Majesty crossed into South Africa without any hassles, after the prior granting of the clearance, but all hell broke loose on his return.
“It (the incident) happened at the beginning of February when His Majesty went to Durban on private business and the protocol office followed the normal procedure of requesting clearance for the guns… The clearance was actually requested and granted five hours before departure.
“On his return, the King was stopped at the border gate for more than an hour when the South African police demanded permits for the guns ….When they (police officers) were informed that the clearances were issued before travelling to South Africa, the police who had already opened the boot of his car tried to search his clothes. That was when His Majesty’s bodyguards stood their ground and told them to never search his clothes,” Mr Makgothi said.
The Minister said His Majesty’s protocol officer called him after the incident and he immediately alerted the South African High Commissioner to Lesotho, Sello Moloto, of the diplomatic gaffe.
“I summoned Ntate Moloto and gave him a diplomatic note to pass on to the South African government detailing the harassment and embarrassment the King was subjected to when his cars were stopped and searched for over an hour.
“I demanded a meeting with relevant authorities in South Africa and unfortunately that fell on deaf ears. Two days later, I met with the Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and requested him to write to then President Zuma requesting a meeting over the issue. But Mr Zuma didn’t take this matter seriously,” Mr Makgothi said.
He said Dr Thabane’s raised the issue with Mr Zuma at a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but this fell on deaf ears as the former president casually retorted that the issue would be discussed on some unspecified future date.
After Mr Zuma’s fall and his subsequent replacement by Cyril Ramaphosa later in February, Mr Makgothi said he wrote a fresh letter to Ms Sisulu indicating the need for the matter to be urgently addressed.
The two ministers subsequently met this week on the sidelines of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) council of ministers meeting in Pretoria.
“We met on Tuesday and discussed this and other issues and she (Ms Sisulu) said they were very embarrassed that the matter had not been attended to. She said South Africa didn’t want to spoil its good bilateral relations with Lesotho as it was fully aware of the history it shared with Lesotho,” he said.
He said Ms Sisulu then made a commitment to travel to Lesotho immediately after this weekend’s Easter holidays to personally apologise to His Majesty for the bad treatment he suffered at the hands of the border officials.
At a press conference on Tuesday evening, Ms Sisulu expressed deep regret over the mistreatment of the King.
“I’ve just had a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Lesotho. As you know, we are experiencing problems at the (Maseru) border…. The King of Lesotho is extremely aggrieved by the way he was treated at the border. I have expressed to him (Mr Makgothi) my sincerest apologies for what happened.
“I have indicated to him that I will personally go to Lesotho to apologise to the King for any ill-treatment he might have encountered at our border,” Ms Sisulu said.
Ms Sisulu said South Africa’s Home Affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, would travel to the Maseru border this week as part of the high level intervention to diffuse the matter.
Ms Silulu’s intervention comes amid threats by aggrieved Basotho to blockade the busy border post next week to protest the poor service which ordinary travelers are being subjected to on the South African side.
Long queues have become commonplace as South African immigration officials are often not at their posts to serve travelers while those in attendance operate at a snail’s pace and appear to be on a permanent go slow.
“He (Mr Gigaba) is on his way to the border post so that he can deal with some of the administrative problems that have been brought to our attention by the government of Lesotho.
“The complaint from the King was uppermost in his mind. We are also very concerned about what might happen there (at the border post) and therefore we need to normalise the situation,” Ms Sisulu said.
Meanwhile, a petition drafted by a local political activist Clifford Lesego titled ‘Republic of South Africa should #RespectOurKing #RespectBasotho’ has been gaining momentum on social media.
The petition is addressed to President Ramaphosa, Dr Thabane, Ms Sisulu, Mr Gigiba, Mr Makgothi, and Home Affairs minister Tsukutlane Au.
“While we appreciate that Lesotho is completely surrounded by the mighty Republic of South Africa, RSA must know that Lesotho is a sovereign state and a democratic monarchy. Our King is a symbol of unity and peace. RSA should know that they can mess up with us as much as they want but NOT with our King,” part of the petition states.
“Our King was subjected to the worst treatment ever. A Head of state being taken out of his official car and searched? Your apology is not very important. What is important is for you to address the situation in your country. Your people and government should respect Lesotho and Basotho,” the petition further states.