Passing of King Moshoeshoe Spotlights One of the Last Monarchies in Africa FEUDAL POLITICS

By Judith Matloff, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

Passing of King Moshoeshoe Spotlights One of the Last Monarchies in Africa FEUDAL POLITICS


Judith Matloff, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WHEN the king of Lesotho died last week in a car crash, even his political opponents whom he ousted in a palace coup stepped forth to mourn him.

Most African kings are little more than tribal figureheads with limited power. But not in Lesotho, the tiny mountain country stuck in the middle of South Africa.

As head of state, King Moshoeshoe II had an almost mythical stature among the nation's 1.7 million people, many of them herders who see him as the ultimate shepherd of men.

"The king is a symbol of unity. We look upon him as an umbrella which protects us from the scorching sun," says Francis Chiya, mourning in a remote mountain village in the middle of the country. "I feel like I have lost a great father."

He and thousands of fellow hillside villagers were planning to trek for several hours on their hardy ponies, the main source of transport in the isolated peaks, to attend the king's burial this weekend at the royal graveyard near the capital, Maseru.

The residents cloaked in their all-purpose blankets seem frozen in time, their lives governed by a feudal-like system of chiefs and superstition.

For a nation of herders, no one thought it odd that the monarch had been checking up on his cattle at 1 a.m. before his fatal ride on a treacherous winding peak. In this largely rural nation, livestock are taken seriously as symbols of wealth and worth and the king was seen to be acting as a thoroughly responsible Basotho by making sure his animals were safe at such an hour.

Moshoeshoe II, the direct descendent of the founding father of Lesotho, is the only royal head of state in Africa aside from Swaziland. Other monarchs, such as Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini of South Africa, are battling to maintain influence in competition with modern-day political parties and other tribes.

But the Lesotho monarchy seems to have an enduring place in the hearts and minds of the nation's largely homogeneous Basotho ethnic group.

"The monarchy will remain in Lesotho for a long time. It is rooted in the people and is a source of grass-roots unity. There must be someone on the throne," says Gilbert Ramolahluane, assistant secretary general of the ruling Basotho Congress Party (BCP), whose democratically elected government Moshoeshoe briefly toppled in a 1994 palace coup.

He and other politicians say the monarchy has the potential to create an oasis of stability on a continent of turmoil.

Protected by monarchy

The role of the king and his 22 primary chiefs has also been a unifying force in protecting the identity of Lesotho, which has struggled over the past three centuries to retain a sense of independence.

The economy is dependent on South Africa, which is the primary source of income for thousands of Lesotho migrant workers. If it were not for the kingdom, many locals say, Lesotho would be swallowed up by South Africa.

Despite its proximity to the giant surrounding state, during the later years of minority white rule in South Africa Lesotho's government asserted its independence by giving haven to black liberation activists of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. …

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