South Africa weighs withdrawal from messy Lesotho intervention Resistance was fiercer, and intelligence less reliable than expected

September 26, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's first post-apartheid military operation on foreign soil -- the intervention in neighboring Lesotho -- is proving a chastening one.

The death toll stands at 66, with dozens more injured. Property damage amounts to millions of dollars. The political crisis that provoked the intervention is as grave as ever, with first the opposition, then the government, refusing to talk to each other.

And South Africans now face the most difficult issue of all -- when and how to withdraw from a mess, in large part, of their own making.

"We protested here for almost seven weeks without a single window being broken, and now look at our city -- it has been destroyed," said Mamelo Morrison, an opposition spokeswoman.

South Africans have seen eight of their soldiers brought home in military body bags, the price of encountering resistance of unforeseen ferocity from the Lesotho army mutineers. So serious was the intelligence failure that the South African troops were initially issued blank ammunition, on the assumption that they would meet little resistance.

Capital secured

Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, has been secured with the help of troops from Botswana, but that does not help the South Africans in their perplexity over getting out.

While resistance in the major barracks has been quelled, rebel troops have retreated to the mountains, from which they could launch guerrilla attacks.

A military committee of South African, Botswanan and Lesotho officers has been formed to take interim control of the country, which was descending into anarchy before the intervention and completed the descent after it.

The crisis was sparked by the opposition's refusal to accept the landslide victory of the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which won 79 of 80 parliamentary seats in the May general election.

The five major opposition parties alleged ballot fraud. An independent inquiry by a South African judge found irregularities but declared that they were not sufficient to annul the result.

Crucially, release of the inquiry report was delayed, fueling opposition suspicions that it, too, had been tampered with.

Reported coup d'etat

Protests and demonstrations all but crippled the government, and senior military officers were forced to resign by a young cadre supporting the opposition. This led to the reports of a coup d'etat, and a request from Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili for outside military help.

The request was addressed to the 14-nation Southern African Development Community, of which Lesotho and South Africa are members. SADC is committed to preventing coups against any member government.

South Africa, which surrounds Lesotho, was obviously best placed to respond. But intervention conflicted with its earlier rejection of SADC military help for President Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, President Nelson Mandela and his policy-makers favored negotiations.

Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, were both overseas, leaving Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, as acting president and commander-in-chief, to order the intervention.

Mandela and Mbeki have been widely criticized for remaining abroad while South African soldiers were being killed.

Mandela, largely a figurehead in recent months, will end his presidency after elections next April. He was on a farewell tour of North America, while Mbeki, his heir-apparent who has effectively been running the country, was attending the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia. Both were consulted by Buthelezi, and both approved the operation.

By sending its troops in, South Africa has embittered relations with a country that is almost an economic extension of itself. Lesotho sits in the heartland of South Africa, surrounded by the South African provinces of KwaZulu Natal, the Free State and the Eastern Cape.

The so-called "mountainous kingdom" provides water to six of South Africa's nine provinces. It is a major supplier of workers for this country's mines, and has been an attractive investment for South African entrepreneurs.

One test now will be the rebuilding of Maseru, which is practically in ruins after a 48-hour frenzy of arson and looting, after the South African incursion Tuesday. Millions of dollars worth of damage has been done, much of it to South African businesses and vehicles.

Who will pay?

The question is: Who will pay?

Insurance, where it exists, has been largely voided by act of war. Lesotho, an impoverished country in the best of times, is unable to finance the sort of recovery program now needed.

And South Africa faces its own economic strictures, with housing, health, and educational programs all being squeezed. In Pretoria, the cash-strapped capital, the local council abandoned residential street cleaning last week to save money.

The weekly Mail and Guardian said South African troops should now be used to help rebuild the city with money from the defense budget, adding: "When we are finished we can erect a plaque, dedicated: 'To the people of Lesotho, from their neighbors in South Africa, with thanks for the lesson they taught us and apologies for the pain it cost them.' "

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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