The sudden requirement by authorities in South Africa that Basotho departing Lesotho should get their passports stamped before they can enter that country evokes mixed reactions.
That the requirement is in line with international law is not in dispute but also that there was a mutual but unwritten, if tacit, understanding regarding movement of citizens between the countries’ borders is also not in doubt.
For years Basotho and foreigners legally resident in the Kingdom did not have to stamp their passports when leaving the country by road or on foot.
While this laxity could be blamed for a lot of ills, particularly in neighbouring South Africa, for Basotho this ensured easier movement out of the country.
In a country where checking of passports is still done manually, the practice saved a lot of time.
So last Sunday when many Basotho working in South Africa were streaming back to work after the festive season, they unexpectedly met a huge hurdle in the form of long queues at departure points from the Lesotho side.
Lesotho’s Home Affairs Minister, Joang Molapo, told this paper the announcement by South Africa was made on New Year’s Day which no doubt did not give authorities enough time to prepare for it.
While South Africa was simply following international law, we feel the move posed logistical nightmares for immigration authorities in Lesotho, given that the Kingdom still uses the outdated manual system of processing entry and exit through its borders.
For South Africa, with its modern computerised system at passport check points, it is understandable authorities in question might have overlooked the logistical burden their decision would place on their poor, tiny neighbour.
Against this background, we think as a matter of form and courtesy, South Africa’s Home Affairs authorities should have consulted their Lesotho counterparts well in advance.
Given the history of relations between the two countries, Basotho cannot help but feel hard done by. The unilateral announcement, on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, as Molapo puts it, leaves many in the tiny Kingdom feeling South Africa is condescending, even though the giant neighbour is following international law to the letter.
The feeling in Lesotho is powerful South Africa has no qualms treating poor neighbours like its own backyard.
On the other hand, possible bottlenecking of Basotho’s movement into South Africa will inevitably affect business in border towns like Fickburg and Ladybrand.
The ripple effects, businesswise, could even be felt as far as Bloemfontein.
A simple case of Basotho wanting to watch a soccer match in Bloemfontein can, for instance, illustrate the point.
Not many soccer fans would be patient enough to queue to get passports stamped for departure, unless the computerisation of Lesotho’s passport checkpoints initiated last month is expedited.
For a country with a staggering unemployment rate of 35 percent, large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled Basotho take up menial jobs in South Africa.
Mind you behind each of the hundreds of people who take up work as domestic workers, guards and miners in South Africa, are at least two dependants back home.
This means a lot more people than the numbers that meet the eye are affected by any decisions that affect these jobs.
We are not saying South Africa is wrong in tightly implementing international law, the discomfort lies in the timing and in the fact that there was no fore-warning, something that sustains good neighbourliness.
However, given that Lesotho has already moved to upgrade the country’s passport, in addition to introducing a national ID, authorities in South Africa should have factored-in that commitment and forewarned its neighbour, at the very least.
We believe unilaterally moving to tighten passport control, no matter how legitimate, is not the best way forward because such steps normally breed unforeseen corruption of one kind or another as people will always find ways to circumvent strictures.
We hope therefore, as Molapo said, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane will meet with President Jacob Zuma as soon as possible to chart a mutually comfortable course out of this confusion.