By Boitumelo Koloi
MASERU — Minister of Home Affairs Joang Molapo said South Africa’s unilateral decision to change the way Basotho enter that country took Lesotho off-guard.
South Africa’s Home Affairs authorities told their counterparts in Lesotho that they now want to see Lesotho passports stamped for departure from Lesotho, failing which Basotho passport holders would be barred from entering that country.
South Africa’s decision was communicated on New Year’s Day.
The change, which means South Africa now wants Basotho travelling to South Africa to have their passports stamped before crossing over to the other side, is contrary to the previous arrangement where travellers only had to stamp their passports when they got to the South African side.
As a result of the change, hundreds of Basotho going back to work in South Africa after the holiday break were barred entry into that country if their passports were not stamped in Lesotho.
Scores could be seen stranded at Maseru Bridge Border post last Sunday.
Over the years, both Basotho nationals and non-Basotho nationals legally resident in Lesotho did not need to have their passports stamped when leaving the country. This ensured smooth movement of people out of a country which still uses an outdated and laborious manual system of checking passports.
The sudden and new requirement by South Africa saw long queues forming at Lesotho’s departure points.
Last Sunday, migrant workers were trapped in a queue stretching for more than 500 metres from the border and many spend the evening waiting on the Lesotho side resulting in some failing to make it to work the next day.
According to Molapo, the change effected by the South African authorities was not explained and it came on a take-it-or-leave-it basis which means that there was no opportunity to explain the drastic measure.
Ironically, the decision comes as Lesotho is still in talks with South Africa to ease border movements between the two countries due to the two countries’ shared historical background and the geographical peculiarity of the two countries’ location (wherein Lesotho is entirely landlocked by its giant neighbour).
It also comes at a time when Lesotho is tightening the screws on its borders by shifting from the manual to the automated system, as well as rolling out the new e-passport and national ID with lots of security features previously absent.
Molapo said when he learnt about the change he wrote to his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, seeking explanation for the drastic measure.
He said however that the measure was not in violation of any laws and that, on the contrary, the new arrangement was in compliance with international laws which require that travellers get their passports stamped on both sides of the borders in question.
“However, we still await a response from South Africa. Although we are aware that the change was forced down our throats, we are aware that it is in compliance with international laws,” Molapo said.
He said he had already briefed both the Foreign Affairs Minister Mohlabi Tsekoa and Prime Minister Tom Thabane about the development.
“The Prime Minister has even promised to have a meeting with his South African counterpart President (Jacob) Zuma to forge a way forward and that meeting could happen anytime hence I have been ordered to be on stand-by at five-minutes’ notice to attend, if need be,” Molapo said.
Relations between the two neighbours may be at stake over the sudden, unilateral requirement.
According to Molapo, the timing of the move may not be the best as this was done at one of the peak periods of movement between the two countries.
Molapo said it leaves Lesotho with some doubt as to whether or not the move is a regressive one towards the two countries’ relations which have in recent years suffered a knock over border control issues.
However, former Deputy Prime Minister Lesao Lehohla who was also home affairs minister in former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government says the move by South Africa has been “a long time coming”.
“We have not necessarily been caught off-guard but this has been a long time coming. The downside though is that it has precipitated problems for Basotho,” Lehohla said.
According to Lehohla, the practice by Basotho to cross over to South Africa without their passports being checked on the Lesotho side was not a written agreement but merely “an understanding between neighbours”.
The former deputy premier added that South Africa expressed its concerns to the Lesotho government regarding the oversight just four months ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup but also admitted that the incompatibility between the two countries’ systems also caused some inconveniences.
Lehohla said they were advised by South African authorities to upgrade the Lesotho border system from manual to electronic because the responsibility of verifying travellers’ travel documents was placed solely on South Africa’s shoulders.
“The issue was raised in 2010 during preparations for the Soccer World Cup, with South Africa saying Lesotho did not stamp travellers’ passports thus leaving the responsibility with them,” Lehohla said.