One garden in two countries

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Lesotho and South African governments in landmark initiatives to solve their complex relationship 

The Ministry of Home Affairs has embarked on a nationwide campaign to register Basotho living close to the South African border for special passes. The passes would enable the residents to cross into South Africa without having to use regular border-posts but community crossings. The campaign kick-started in Mohale’s Hoek on Friday last week, with scores of Liphiring residents registering for the initiative, which is being held in conjunction with South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs.

In this wide-ranging interview, Home Affairs Deputy Minister Phallang Monare, who led Lesotho’s delegation to Mohale’s Hoek last week for the launch, speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about this and other initiatives the two neighbours are exploring to make the lives of their citizens better.

LT: A landmark initiative, one would say, and one Basotho have been seeking for years. Could you tell us more about this cross-border arrangement the Ministry of Home Affairs has entered into with South Africa?

Monare: Perhaps I should start by stating that there are about five issues we are currently working on with South Africa to improve our relations. The first is what we call special dispensation, where we would want to regularise the status of Basotho in South Africa. We have Basotho staying in South Africa illegally; they just live there without proper documentation. We are working together so that those people will end up having proper documents and their stay in South Africa legalized. If push comes to shove, we are going to visit them in South Africa and try to locate all of them so that we register them for this dispensation. We are already working on this together with our respective embassies. For instance, we have about 25 Basotho in Pretoria who informed us that they had already heard about this initiative and would like us to visit them.

LT: And the other issues?

Monare: The second issue is of movement between our two countries. We would want to get rid of this issue of stamping passports every time we cross the border into South Africa. This wastes time and creates problems as the document fills up quickly and the holder would frequently have to get a new one. So at the moment, we have already placed new machinery at the main border-posts so that the passport will simply be scanned. We are at an advanced stage on this initiative. The third one concerns Basotho studying in South Africa. We are working towards having special visas for these students. Again, we have what we call the Trusted Travellers System. This is where we are going to identify people who regularly travel to South Africa and also issue them with special permits. They should be known and made available in the system so that their frequent travel to South Africa or Lesotho is made easier. Then we have the last one which we refer to as the Community Border-Crossing.

LT: Could you please explain what this Community Border-Crossing is?

Monare: We have about eight official points of entry into the country from South Africa. On the other hand, we also have what we call community border-crossings which are not official. You saw this as we launched this initiative in Liphiring on Friday; you saw how some Basotho are so close to South Africa. You saw how someone’s residence is so near the borderline that it becomes unfair to restrict such a person from travelling just across to do his or her business. The situation is almost like dividing someone’s garden into two countries; one part of his land is in Lesotho while the other one is on the other side of the country! I grew up there, which is why I remember how, regardless of the borderline, we used to treat each other like one community. It was normal for people to cross the border just to buy traditional beer, drink it there and come home later. This was done on a daily basis and nobody cared whether the cross-border movement was legal or illegal. For me, I prefer using the words formal or informal instead of legal and illegal in this instance.

LT: But how did this happen? Why was the border drawn the way it is now where relatives ended up being split between Lesotho and South Africa?

Monare: South African officials even used some places in Botswana as examples, where you find what is supposed to be one village divided by the border. You find that the villagers are even one tribe. How do you expect such a community to live considering the borderline? It does not make sense that people from Liphiring should travel all the way to faraway official crossing points at Van Rooyen’s Gate or Makhaleng, when all they need is to buy milk from a neighbour just across the border. So against this background, we sat down with our South African counterparts and came up with a plan that is specifically targeted at legalising and easing cross-border movement for these communities right where they are. The current survey we are conducting is set to determine even the number of people who will need those special passes, which I believe will come in the form of stickers to be attached within their passports. This is to say the basic requirement, even before one can qualify for the special sticker, is a passport. The survey will also reveal why these people keep travelling to South Africa.

LT: What is going to happen after the survey?

Monare: At the end of the survey, a report with details about the number of people and the reasons why they need that special document, will be issued. We will then see which of these community border-gates should be opened for them. The fact is whether we like it or not, they are still crossing informally. So really, we need to regularise the movement.

LT: Apart from Liphiring, which are the other locations identified for this initiative?

Monare: In Mohale’s Hoek, we also have Mokoroane identified for the project. We further have Tšupane in Mafeteng. Other villages are found in Peka in Leribe district, which are Leburu, Patsa, Tabola, Monyane, Lephodisa, Masakale, Matsoete and Chaka. And in Butha-Buthe, we have Phoku.

LT: What do the villagers need to register?

Monare: We need their fingerprints and full identification. This is because we are saying this is only meant for those people living at the edge of the border. People from other parts of the country should not be seen taking advantage of this system to push their agendas in South Africa. As a ministry, we are also going to make sure those particular people are provided with full identification documents, including passports, where they don’t have them, so that they will qualify for the special passes.

LT: In the past, there have been complaints of cross-border theft and other crimes. Isn’t this initiative going to compromise security in the two countries?

Monare: Police officers are going to be deployed at those community borders. As we speak, South Africa has already undertaken to deploy 10 officers at each of the borders. We will follow suit. The reason why we want these particular people to register is simply so that there is control of movement between the two countries. If there is control, it means issues such as cross-border theft and other crimes will be well taken care of. In other words, we are curbing criminal activities by implementing these initiatives. So basically, in a way, we are tightening cross-border security through these processes.

LT: When can we expect all these initiatives to be implemented?

Monare: The deadlines for all the five issues I have referred to differ. However, we anticipate that some, if not most of them, will be implanted in 2016. For instance, it is indicated in the agreement between our two countries that commencement and implementation modalities will be announced by the respective Home Affairs ministers (Malusi Gigaba of South Africa and Lekhetho Rakuoane of Lesotho) in due course. This is particularly the case with the issue of special dispensation for undocumented Basotho in South Africa. For the community border crossing, we will just wait for the survey to be completed and a report is made. Soon after the report, we believe it will be implemented. But with the special study permits, the commencement date of January 2016 has been definitely set.

LT: What can you say about Lesotho’s relations with South Africa, at the moment?

Monare: In my opinion, our relations with South Africa seem to be rapidly improving. The only thing that ruins the relationship is crime. If we can fight cross-border crime, then there is no reason to worry about our relations with South Africa. You see the reason why the six-month visas, which were being issued to regular Basotho travelers, were stopped was because some people had taken advantage and used them for criminal purposes. Criminals would use the visas to hide in either of the two countries. So, even as we are implementing these new initiatives to improve our relations with South Africa, it will be a waste if people are going to commit crime through these initiatives. We are therefore appealing to Basotho to make good use of the initiatives and not misuse them as that will only lead to worsening the relationship.

LT: Lesotho is a sovereign state, so is there a specific reason why it should get special treatment from South Africa?

Monare: Lesotho is a very special country in the whole world. There are several other countries which are neighbours to South Africa, but as for us, we are a special neighbour because South Africa is our only neighbour. We are one nation which is completely landlocked by another country, which is South Africa. That is how special we should be treated in return. We share history with South Africa. I am not saying we should not have relations with other countries, but I am saying we must have special relations with South Africa. We are unique because nowhere else in the world will you find any other country landlocked by another. There are other countries which are landlocked, but they share borders with many countries, not just one. Our situation is therefore unique, in that context.

LT: What message do you want to convey to the nation as you embark on these landmark initiatives?

Monare: We can only appeal not only to Basotho, but to the South Africans as well, to make good use of these initiatives. They should value them because they are meant to simplify their lives. You see, South Africa has some of its market places so near Lesotho that you find that Basotho are the only customers for such businesses. If it is not made easier for Basotho to cross to the markets, then there would be no business at those markets; they would collapse as a result.

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