Academic journal article Africa

A Chief by the People: Nation versus State in Lesotho

Academic journal article Africa

A Chief by the People: Nation versus State in Lesotho

Article excerpt


To make narrative generalisations on the substance of citizenship and national identity for members of another nation is undeniably rash. We do so under the presumption that enquiring into the meaning of Basotho identity in the context of Lesotho's recent political turmoil is both helpful and timely, particularly in relation to perceptions of the `ethnic' dimensions of intrastate political conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. What we hope to demonstrate is that the particular disjunctions in Lesotho between government and state, on the one hand, and ethnicity and nation, on the other, pose problems for the general process of democratic transformation in state structures on the subcontinent. Certainly it is as true now as in 1977 when Richard Weisfelder wrote of Lesotho that `the paradox of pervasive conflict in one of the few ethnically and linguistically homogenous African states lends added significance to efforts at penetrating this tangled political thicket' (1977: 161). What we argue at length, in brief, is that the sovereign state may not be the most ideal or beneficial political embodiment of a national identity; and that elections do not, of themselves, provide a context or even a ritual substantiation for democracy. To advance these points we begin with a meditation on the quality of Sesotho (the language/culture of the Basotho) as an identity, move to a selective analysis of significant points in the transformation of the chieftaincy, narrate relevant aspects of Lesotho's post-independence political crises, and conclude with a set of projections about the disjunction between the Basotho nation and state and the prospects for nationalism in Lesotho. In so doing, we intervene in a contentious local debate, namely whether the country should be incorporated into South Africa.

But first a comment on the historical status of `indigenous' Basotho political institutions. Differences and affinities in language, custom, identity, and political organisation have always existed and changed among speakers of southern Bantu languages. Since the eighteenth century, these distinctions and affiliations have been so interwoven with colonial interventions that it is tendentious to speak of `pre-colonial societies', or of autonomous, undisturbed African `clans' or `peoples', cataclysmically `disrupted' by the ambush of (white) History. Eldredge (1993: 16) even argues that `. . . to the extent that centralized political authority was accepted by the BaSotho, it was not because of an overwhelming dominance of the Bakoena [ruling clan] internally but because of the overriding threat of first Africans and later Europeans externally'. Since the founding of the Basotho state in the 1820s, as Weisfelder (1977: 167) points out, efforts at national cohesion have been foiled by the constant battle against dependence upon outsiders. Of course, Africans are not only objects but participants in the process of ethnogenesis; authors as well as terms in the discourse of primordial cultural oppositions. As David Scott has pointedly observed:

... local discourses do, in fact, establish authoritative traditions, discrete

temporal and spatial parameters in which it is made singularly clear to cultural

subjects and their others what is (and who are) to belong within these

parameters, and what (and who) not ... the important issue here is ... the

political one of how and in what kinds of material circumstances, through what

kinds of discursive and nondiscursive relations, claims about the presence or

absence of boundaries are made, fought out, yielded, negotiated. [Scott, 1992:


Seemingly, people would prefer to live and die as Zulu or Chechnyan and not as simply the Wretched of the Earth. Expressions of ethnic identification-- `I am a Mosotho'--are internalised constituents of the self and social reality, as well as consciously constructed political resources. …

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