Surrounded by imposing mountain ranges, with lofty peaks and deep valleys, the small, land-locked nation of Lesotho is a place of topographical extremes. Often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Africa’, the Kingdom of Lesotho boasts unique afro-alpine ecosystems, a fascinating heritage, and makes up one of only three remaining monarchies in Africa.
Over the past few decades, Lesotho has transitioned from a predominantly subsistence-oriented economy to achieve lower middle-income status. While agriculture remains important to the rural economy, other sectors such as manufacturing, construction and mining are today the major contributors to growth, and the country’s chief exports comprise textiles and garments, water, diamonds, wool and mohair. Notable developments since independence include the multi-billion- dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), which harnesses the country’s most abundant asset, its water or ‘white gold’, for the industrial complex of neighbouring Gauteng Province in South Africa.
Considering Lesotho’s geographical position in the middle of the economic hub of South Africa, strengthening ties with the rest of the region is a top priority. It is currently a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Common Monetary Area (CMA) and Southern African Customs Union (SACU), as well as benefiting from a fixed exchange rate regime with South Africa. Furthermore, trade preferences such as the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) have been beneficial for the textile and garments industry.
Slower growth in the South African economy, which decelerated in 2017 and plunged into recession in 2018, had a disproportionate impact on Lesotho’s overall performance. This saw a contraction of 0.9 percent in 2017, which was followed by a modest recovery of 1.2 percent in 2018 thanks to the improved performance in mining, manufacturing and financial services.
Projected growth of 2.7 percent in 2019 is expected to be driven by strong activity in construction. Several construction projects are underway, namely the Tikoe and Belo industrial estates, the Mpiti-Sehlabathebe and Marakabei-Monontša roads, and the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project as well as the Lesotho Lowlands Water Development Project. While the mining and textiles industries continue to benefit from somewhat favourable external demand conditions, they remain vulnerable to global trade shocks. The Central Bank of Lesotho anticipates an annual growth rate averaging 2.8 percent in the medium term.
Although per capita incomes have risen, propelling Lesotho to its current status as a lower middle-income country, unemployment and poverty remain a huge constraint to social development. The private sector is seen as being a key catalyst for the country’s future growth, and progress continues to be made in improving the business climate.
A new Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact Development Grant Agreement worth US $5.78 million should help to address Lesotho’s job crisis and will focus on the four key sectors of tourism, manufacturing, information technology and commercial agriculture. Furthermore, great success has been realised through the Lesotho Economic Labs, which during 2019 brought together Government, investors, project owners and captains of industry. This initiative has led to M19.9 billion worth of private investment pledges and 30 000 new job opportunities for Basotho.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE
Like only two other independent states in the world (Vatican City and the Republic of San Marino), Lesotho is completely surrounded by another country, forming an enclave within the Republic of South Africa, where it borders on the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal to the east, the Eastern Cape to the south, and the Free State to the north and west. With a total area of 30 355 square kilometres, making it similar in size to Belgium, Lesotho spans 434 kilometres from north to south and is encircled by a border measuring 909 kilometres.
The Drakensberg range forms Lesotho’s eastern boundary with South Africa’s province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Lesotho’s mountain highlands cover some two-thirds of the land area at elevations ranging from around 2 300 metres to 3 200 metres. The highest peak – which is also the highest point in Southern Africa – is the 3 482-metre Thabana-Ntlenyana in the Maloti mountain range. Two of the region’s principal rivers, the westward flowing Senqu (Orange) and eastward flowing Tugela, have their source in the Malotis, as do tributaries of the Mohokare (Caledon) River, which forms Lesotho’s western border.
The foothills, which range from 1 800 to 2 100 metres above sea-level, descend in undulating slopes to the west, where the lowlands (between 1 500 and 1 800 metres) border on the Free State in South Africa. The lowest point in Lesotho is at the junction of the Senqu and Makhaleng rivers: 1 380 metres. From the basalt cliffs of the highlands to the sandstone hills of the lowlands, Lesotho has the highest low point of any independent state in the world.
Lesotho contains a high degree of biodiversity and endemic plant and animal varieties as well as a remarkable prehistoric and cultural heritage. Vegetation consists mainly of grassland, with patches of evergreen trees and shrubs. Indigenous trees include wild olive, Cape willow and cheche bush (leucosidea sericea), which is used for fuel. There are also numerous indigenous species of aloe, which are commonly found in the cooler, wet areas.
The highlands are home to spectacular birdlife as well as rare wildlife species, which have developed specialised adaptations to the high altitude environment. Around 150 years ago, animals such as wildebeest, zebra, ostrich and lion could still be found in the country. These populations were decimated by hunting and deforestation, with the last lion killed in the 1870s. These days wildlife comprises smaller antelope and hares, as well as the hyrax (dassie), which is quite common. Birds such as raptors and mammals including mountain reedbuck and leopards can be found in Sehlabathebe National Park in the south-eastern highlands near Qacha’s Nek. Lesotho is also the last stronghold in Southern Africa of the magnificent bearded vulture, or ‘lammergeier’.
Lesotho’s climate is classified as ‘continental’, meaning that the country experiences significant annual variations in temperature because of the absence of large bodies of water in the vicinity. In the lowlands the range is from -7°C in winter to 30°C in summer. Winter in the highlands is more severe: heavy snowfalls sometimes cut off access to mountain settlements, and temperatures may drop to -18°C. The mean summer temperature is about 25°C and the mean winter temperature some 15°C. Because of its altitude, which is on average 2 161 metres above sea level, Lesotho remains cooler throughout the year than most other regions at the same latitude.
Although summers, which last from November to January, are generally sunny, the weather is also notoriously unpredictable. Sudden rain, mist or localised thunderstorms and hail are common between October and April, when approximately 85 percent of annual rainfall occurs. Annual average precipitation is around 710mm, encompassing variations between some 600mm in the lowland valleys and approximately 1 200mm on the northern and eastern escarpment. Winters are characterised by clear skies, with snowfalls usually occurring from May to September, although snow may fall on the highest peaks at any time of year.
HISTORY & POLITICS
Lesotho has been inhabited since the Neolithic Period, when its mountains were the domain of Khoisan-speaking hunter-gatherers, the San. The accelerating competition for land and resources that marked the history of the Maloti region in the latter part of the 19th Century saw the eventual disappearance of these hardy hunter-gatherers from the area. They nonetheless left their mark on the land through a rich legacy of rock art, and smatterings of their language still survive in the Sesotho tongue.
Lesotho’s other early settlers were pastoralist Bantu-speaking people from West and Central Africa, who first entered the southern part of the continent sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE. By the 19th Century, Sotho clans had spread across the southern plateau, over the western region of present-day Lesotho and a large, fertile expanse of surrounding territory, which is today part of South Africa’s Free State Province. Comprising small chiefdoms that united into loose confederations, these southern Sotho tribes came to constitute the Basotho people and speak the unique Sesotho dialect.
Perhaps the most important figure in Lesotho’s history is Moshoeshoe the Great, who was born in 1786 at Menkhoaneng in what is today the district of Botha-Bothe. The son of a minor chief of the Bakoena of Mokoteli, he was named Lepoqo at birth and later given the praise name Moshoeshoe after he had captured the cattle of Chief Ramonaheng. The emergence of the Basotho as a nation began around the time that Moshoeshoe became chief (1820) and started to form alliances with local clans and chiefdoms.
Just prior to Moshoeshoe’s rise to power, the region entered a period of great conflict and upheaval which lasted from around 1815 to 1840. Discord among the Nguni people in Natal and the arrival of white settlers across the Orange River had a far-reaching impact on the history of the Basotho. The expanding military dictatorship of King Shaka of the Zulus, together with a region-wide drought, sparked off the ‘Lifaqane’ (Great Scattering) in a fierce competition among displaced tribes for scarce resources.
When Moshoeshoe’s capital of Botha-Bothe came under attack in 1824, he gathered his people together and retreated to Qiloane plateau and the steep, flat-topped mountain which was to be known as Thaba-Bosiu – the ‘Mountain at Night’. Besieged many times during Moshoeshoe’s reign, the mountain fortress of Thaba-Bosiu, with its near-vertical cliffs, good grazing and freshwater springs, was never captured.
While many neighbouring populations were dispersed or decimated during this time, the Basotho emerged as a united force under the inspired leadership of Moshoeshoe. His policy of offering safe haven to refugees (many who were of Nguni origin) in return for their help in defending Basotho territory, helped to create a loosely federated Basotho state forged from local Sotho tribes as well as remnants of scattered clans. Moshoeshoe’s position, built on military as well as diplomatic skill, was by 1840 firmly entrenched, and his subjects numbered about 40 000.
In the ensuing decades, the Basotho came under increasing threat from the adjoining Orange Free State. Boer soldiers overran Morija in 1858 and, although Thaba-Bosiu stood firm, repeated onslaughts resulted in Moshoeshoe losing much of his territory. Forced into a peace treaty in 1866, he signed over most of his good land to the Orange Free State. However, further attacks from the Boers came in 1867 and, with pressure mounting, Moshoeshoe appealed to the British for help. In March 1868 the country’s present-day boundaries were established when it became the British protectorate of Basutoland.
By the time of Moshoeshoe’s death in 1870, the Basotho nation comprised some 150 000 people. A wise leader who believed in maintaining peace and harmony with all those around him, Moshoeshoe’s near mythical reputation survives to this day.
Control of Basutoland was transferred to the Cape Colony after Moshoeshoe’s death. Tax collection by the new administration caused increasing friction, and a rebellion in 1879 led to the Gun (Basotho) War from 1880 to 1881. This conflict seriously weakened the Cape government, and in 1884 Basutoland came once more under direct British control. Thanks to its status as a British protectorate, it managed to avoid incorporation into the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Lesotho has enjoyed a long history of political autonomy thanks to the imposing mountain ranges that surround and protect it.
In 1912, the Basotho King Letsie II helped to found the South African Native National Congress, which was later to become the African National Congress (ANC). In the years that followed, Lesotho gained ever more autonomy under British administration, and was granted internal self-government in the form of elections held in 1960 – the same year in which King Moshoeshoe II was crowned. The elections were won by the Basutoland Congress Party (closely allied to South Africa’s ANC), which made full independence from Britain a priority.
The 1965 elections saw a change in government, with the conservative Basutoland National Party (BNP) headed by Chief Leabua Jonathan coming into power. When Independence eventually arrived the following year, Chief Jonathan became the first prime minister of the Kingdom of Lesotho.
Politics and democracy
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy and King Letsie III is the nominal head of state. The Prime Minister is the executive head of state, and the country is governed by a 33-member senate and a 120-member national assembly. For many years, Lesotho’s political landscape comprised two main parties: the Basotho National Party (BNP), which governed between 1965 and 1986, and the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), which held power from 1993 until 1998, when a splinter group, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) under the leadership of Pakalitha Mosisili, won the elections. The LCD remained in power for the next 14 years.
A further shift in Basotho politics took place in February 2012, when Prime Minister Mosisili and 44 supporters left the LCD to form a new party, the Democratic Congress (DC). While Mosisili’s DC won the most seats in the general elections of May 2012, the second-placed All Basotho Congress (ABC), under the leadership of Thomas Thabane, achieved a majority in the 120-seat parliament after forging a coalition with the LCD and BNP.
Political tension within the coalition Government led to clashes between the army and the police during 2014, forcing Prime Minister Thabane to flee to neighbouring South Africa. A deal brokered by then Deputy President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, acting on behalf of SADC, led to a further general election in February 2015. As there was no clear winner, a second consecutive coalition government was formed, with Mr Mosisili’s DC ousting former premier Thabane’s ABC by uniting with smaller parties.
Following a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, in June 2017 Lesotho held yet another general election. Although the ABC secured the highest number of seats, lacking an absolute majority it was compelled to form a four-party coalition government (the third in five years) led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
Lesotho’s present leadership is committed to fully implementing the SADC directive to undertake a series of inclusive reforms in pursuit of lasting peace and security in the country. This comprises constitutional, electoral, parliamentary, public sector and security sector reforms, and includes all relevant stakeholders in order to establish a stable political order. Good progress has been made thus far in strengthening democratic institutions and facilitating economic growth, with the assistance of the country’s development partners as well as the African Union and the United Nations.
The passing of the National Reforms Authority Bill has been welcomed by the SADC Heads of State and Government.
The National Reforms Authority (NRA) Bill passed in August 2019 will see the NRA established as the successor to the National Dialogue Planning Committee (NDPC) set up in 2018. The new Authority operates independently with a view to ensuring transparency, the rule of law and the involvement of the entire nation. The primary objective of the Authority is to coordinate, oversee and strategically lead the implementation of the resolutions and decisions of the Second Plenary, which is the concluding session of the Multi-Stakeholders National Dialogue on national reforms.
The Sotho – also known as ‘Basotho’ and in the singular as ‘Mosotho’ – form the vast majority of the country’s population (99.7 percent). Lesotho is also home to a Zulu minority, some people of Asian or mixed ancestry, and a European community comprising largely expatriate teachers, missionaries, aid workers, advisers and technicians.
‘Lesotho’ means ‘the land of the people who speak Sesotho’, which was the language spoken by the various groups that united under Moshoeshoe I in the early 1800s. Today the country’s official languages are Sesotho and English, and while most people speak Sesotho, English is widely used in government and commerce. The next most commonly spoken language is Zulu, which is heard in the Botha-Bothe district and in the vicinity of the Caledonspoort border post, followed by Xhosa and Phuthi, a dialect of Swati.
A sense of Sotho nationhood and cultural unity remains strong, and the Basotho have developed unique traditions and national dress to suit their mountainous homeland. The cone-shaped Qiloane Mountain, which is one of the kingdom’s best-known landmarks, is the prototype for the iconic ‘mokorotlo’ – the conical Basotho hat made of woven straw. A common sight in the countryside is a Basotho horseman clad in ‘kobo’ (traditional cloak or blanket), who will raise his hand in the customary greeting, ‘khotso’, meaning ‘peace’.
In the rural areas, beautifully patterned woollen blankets ideally suited to the high-altitude climate are the regular form of daily dress for men (especially horsemen and herd boys) as well as many women. New blankets with a unique pattern are created every year in honour of the King’s birthday, and these are bought by the general populace and worn at his public birthday celebrations, which are held in a different town every year.
Basotho women have traditionally been responsible for the creation of ‘litema’, which are decorative etchings made on and inside their homes. Some ‘litema’ are coloured with paint or natural pigments, and their patterns are said to have inspired the designs of the Basotho blanket.
A little under 70 percent of all Basotho still live in the rural areas, and settlements tend to be located high in the mountains, usually well above the deep river valleys where flooding is an ever-present reality. The typical Basotho village comprises a number of ‘kraals’ (a collection of buildings belonging to one family), each of which has an enclosure for livestock in addition to areas for sleeping, cooking and storage.
Villages are encircled by fields where subsistence farming takes place and crops such as maize, wheat, sorghum, beans and peas, onions and cabbage are cultivated. Many local herbs are also gathered as green vegetables known as ‘moroho’. Animals are an important part of daily life. Most families will have some cattle, and oxen are used to plough the sloping mountain fields. Wool and mohair are major sources of income, with herds of sheep and Angora goats tended by shepherds, who are often young boys living in simple huts or ‘motebo’. The hardy Basotho pony remains one of the best forms of transport in the mountains, and donkeys tend to be used as pack animals.
Each village has a chief, or headman, who falls under the chief for that region. Although many Basotho live and work outside Lesotho, their attachment to their local village and culture remains strong. Most traditions and festivals relate to local village life and seasons of the year, based on the communities’ strong agricultural roots.
Population and Housing Census
The results of the 2016 Population and Housing Census revealed that Lesotho’s total population had risen to 2 007 201. This is an increase of nearly 7 percent from the 1 876 633 recorded at the time of the 2006 census: a much faster growth rate than the 0.8 percent registered between the 1996 and 2006 censuses. The average population density registered 66 persons per square kilometre and 349.8 people per square kilometre of arable land.
The urban population has grown immensely since the census of 1996. Between 1996 and 2006, urban dwellers increased by an estimated 43.8 percent, while in the subsequent ten-year period the urban population grew by 62.7 percent. In rural areas, the population expanded by 2.2 percent from 1996 to 2006, and then declined between 2006 and 2016 by 8.6 percent. Out of Lesotho’s total population, some 636 729 were estimated to be residing in urban areas at the time of the 2016 census, translating to an urbanisation rate of 31.7 percent.
The latest demographic indicators from the African Development Bank (AfDB) put Lesotho’s population at a little over 2.26 million in 2018.
Life expectancy at birth has risen considerably between the census of 2006 and that of 2016, from 41.1 years to 56.0 years. For males, it is currently 51.7 years, and for females it is 59.5 years.
Sunset © Afriski – Michael Allen
MAIN POPULATION CENTRES
Lesotho has ten administrative districts, each with its own capital. The district towns have the same name as the district itself, with three exceptions: Leribe, where the capital is Hlotse; Berea, which has Teyateyaneng as its main town; and Quthing, where the capital is also known as Moyeni. Besides the district towns, there are two more gazetted towns in Lesotho; comprising Maputsoe in Leribe district and Semonkong in Maseru district.
Most of the principal population centres have a nucleus of old colonial sandstone buildings housing government departments, post offices and banks. Modern houses and flats provide residential accommodation in the larger towns, while on the outskirts of rural villages typical Basotho dwellings comprise huts made of earth and stone with thatched or corrugated iron roofs.
MASERU: The population of Lesotho’s capital city had grown to 330 760 inhabitants by the time of the 2016 census, and Maseru is now home to more than half of the country’s urban dwellers. The city’s population was 98 017 at the 1986 census, and 137 837 by the 1996 census, illustrating its rapid expansion following Lesotho’s independence.
Maseru, whose name means ‘the place of red sandstone’ in Sesotho, lies in a shallow valley at the foothills of the Maloti Mountains. To the west, the Mohokare (Caledon) River marks the border with South Africa, across which the Free State town of Ladybrand may be easily accessed via the Maseru Bridge border post. From here there are good road links to the rest of Southern Africa, including the harbour of Durban and the economic hub of Johannesburg, with the latter just an hour away by air from Moshoeshoe I International Airport.
The centre of Maseru, which is presently being upgraded, comprises many older colonial buildings built from local sandstone, as well as some newer structures. Kingsway, the main street, boasts multi-storeyed office blocks, banks and ministerial complexes. It runs from the border crossing, southeast through the centre of town to the central traffic circle, where it splits into two important traffic arteries – the main roads to the north and south. Central landmarks along Kingsway include the former Anglican Church, Resident Commissioner’s House, modern Post Office building and large Roman Catholic Church. Colourful markets and a plethora of informal traders give Maseru an authentically African feel.
Maseru’s amenities include international hotels and restaurants, casinos and entertainment venues, as well as modern state-of-the-art shopping malls, chain stores, supermarkets and stylish boutiques. The Avani Maseru Hotel reopened in May 2018 after an extensive M25 million revamp which included the refurbishment of all 105 hotel rooms and the upgrading of technology, entertainment, business, conferencing and catering features. Avani Lesotho Hotel & Casino is situated on a hillside with beautiful views of the city and the surrounding mountains, and boasts free WiFi, dedicated workstations with a media hub, and flexible meeting spaces for both small and large groups.
Maseru Mall lies 3 kilometres to the south of the capital’s central business district and offers a cross-section of department stores, financial services, grocery, clothing and homeware outlets, restaurants and takeaways. Dubbed ‘Lesotho’s largest lifestyle shopping mall’, the centre also boasts a popular family entertainment area.
The refurbished Fairways Plaza on Kingsway forms part of the drive by the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC) to rebuild and upgrade properties in the city centre. Some other recent construction projects include: Pension Fund House, an office block built in Constitution Road by the Public Officers’ Defined Contribution Pension Fund; and Vodacom’s new Maseru headquarters, which is carbon neutral and ranks as the biggest ‘green’ building in Lesotho.
Plans are currently in the pipeline to develop relief infrastructure for Maseru. This will include north and south by-pass roads, toll roads where appropriate, residential and office development using government-owned sites, as well as a ‘smart city’ initiative. This is a long-term programme, which will require Government to utilise Public-Private Partnerships as the main method of project implementation and financing.
In August 2019, construction began on a new Stadium and Indoor Sports Arena at Lepereng, Lithabaneng in Maseru. When fully complete, the stadium will be able to seat 40 000 people. These facilities will be used to host the forthcoming African Union Sports Council (AUSC) Region 5, Maseru 2020 Youth Games.
Important manufacturing activities in Maseru include electronics assembly, textiles and clothing. The state-of-the-art Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital was opened in Botšabelo in 2011, replacing the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital built in the 1950s. Maseru is also home to Lesotho’s other university, Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT).
MAZENOD: The site of Moshoeshoe I International Airport, which opened in 1985, Mazenod takes its name from Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Mazenod is major centre of Catholicism in Lesotho, with educational institutions, a printing works and a conference centre. Because of its proximity to Maseru and network of tarred roads, it also has one of the most rapid population growth rates in the country.
BOTHA-BOTHE: Situated about 125 kilometres from Maseru in northern Lesotho, this is one of the country’s larger towns with a population of 35 108 at the time of the 2016 census. It was first settled in the 1800s by King Moshoeshoe the Great, who made the flat-topped sandstone plateau of Botha-Bothe Mountain his stronghold up until 1824. Botha-Bothe means ‘The Place of Lying Down’, as it was here that Moshoeshoe and his people sought refuge from the widespread chaos and warfare of the ‘Lifaqane’.
The colonial history of Botha-Bothe dates to 1884 when it was set up as a government sub-district to enable the local Basotho to pay their taxes. These days this bustling town with its magnificent mountain backdrop is a tourism hub, boasting community and administrative buildings, a hotel and market place, as well as a mosque for its sizeable Indian population. There are well-preserved dinosaur footprints to be found close to the town in the caves at Sekubu.
ROMA: Set in a lovely valley surrounded by mountains, this attractive town is a short 30-kilometre drive from Maseru. Best known as the site of the National University of Lesotho, Roma is also home to the Lesotho Observatory Foundation, three seminaries, various novitiates and a number of secondary schools.
An athletes’ village is being built at the National University of Lesotho’s Roma campus to accommodate participants in the forthcoming African Union Sports Council (AUSC) Youth Games taking place in 2020.
Roma was founded in 1862 as a Catholic mission town, and contains some surviving mission buildings as well as the more recent addition of a side-chapel to the pro-cathedral that contains the grave of Father Gerard, a French missionary who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. St Joseph’s Hospital, a teaching hospital for the Roma College of Nursing, is also situated here. Visitors will enjoy the Ha Baroana rock art situated to the north of the town, as well as the nearby dinosaur footprints.
MORIJA: Morija was the site of the first French Protestant mission in Lesotho, founded in 1833 by French Protestant missionaries at the invitation of King Moshoeshoe the Great. Named after the biblical Mount Moriah, this quaint town lies about 45 kilometres to the south of Maseru at the foot of the Makhoarane Plateau. An important historical and cultural centre, Morija houses Lesotho’s national museum as well as the oldest building in the country, Maeder House (1843). The impressive Lesotho Evangelical Church built in the mid-19th Century was constructed from over 130 000 handmade bricks.
Although the original settlement was almost destroyed during the 1858 Basotho-Boer War by commandos from the Free State, who left only the church and Maeder House standing, Morija became known as the ‘Well-Spring of Learning’ because of its pivotal role in training Lesotho’s first educated elite. The town has remained an educational and cultural centre, and is home to a number of primary and high schools as well as a theological school.
A small printing press began operating in Morija in 1861 and started the first Sesotho language newspaper: ‘Leselinyana la Lesotho’ (The Little Light of Lesotho). A printing works was subsequently established to produce books and later expanded to distribute Christian and educational literature across southern and central Africa. Situated next to Maeder House, Morija Printing Works maintains a long tradition of high quality production and is the leading press in Lesotho.
The Morija Museum and Archives (MMA) is a non-profit cultural and educational institution developed by the Lesotho Evangelical Church of Southern Africa in 1956. MMA is dedicated to developing programmes and activities related to history, heritage and community-based tourism, the arts and culture, as well as science and the environment.
The Morija Cultural Precinct encompasses the MMA, the Morija Arts Centre (opened in 2011), Maeder House Gallery, Linotšing Studios, Heritage Park, the Morija Amphitheatre and Cafe Mojo, and most recently the Morija Hub, which operates as a creative technology lab and offers basic computer training as well as creative workshops. The cultural precinct is a collaborative community of arts, learning and business enterprises, and builds on Morija’s history as a cultural and tourism destination, with precinct partners sharing resources and customers. (For further information on the MMA and its activities, consult the ‘Tourism’ chapter.)
Government is presently rehabilitating and upgrading 46.7 kilometres of urban roads in Maputsoe, Mohalitoe and Tšosane-Sekamaneng, Mafeteng and Teyateyaneng.
TEYATEYANENG: Teyateyaneng, which is popularly abbreviated to ‘TY’, lies on an elevated plateau approximately 40 kilometres out of Maseru on the A1 North. This pleasant town, whose name means ‘Place of Shifting Sands’ in reference to the changing course of the nearby river, was founded in 1886 as the capital of Berea district by Chief Masopha in the aftermath of the Gun War. Today its population is 24 257 (2016 census).
While Teyateyaneng’s older settlements comprise the St Agnes Mission, the surrounding area was once home to even older inhabitants – the San – whose art remains on some of the rock shelters in the vicinity. TY is also an important centre for local handicrafts such as beautiful tapestries, woollen jerseys, blankets and mohair rugs, pottery and woven goods, with craft outlets to be found both in the town and along the road to Leribe via Pitseng.
PEKA: As a sub-district of Leribe district with its own government reserve, Peka became one of the most densely populated rural areas during the colonial period. From the 1920s until shortly before independence, a colonial officer dealing with administrative matters was stationed at Peka Reserve. Since 1966, a post office and courthouse have been built and electricity and water are now available in the urban area while health services are supplied at two clinics. Tarred roads link Peka with Maputsoe and Leribe to the north, Teyateyaneng to the south, and South Africa via Peka Bridge border post to the west.
MAPOTENG: The Mapoteng area gained prominence in the late 19th Century with the expansion of settlements into the Maloti mountain range, when goods were transported from the road head here into the interior. By 1910 it was known as the site of Dawson’s Store and the seat of the ward chief Peete Lesaoana. Mapoteng was also the birthplace of the political activist Josiel Lefela. The Maluti Adventist Hospital opened in 1951 and has an attached nursing school which is the largest single enterprise in Mapoteng. Originally specialising in eye diseases, the hospital has since set up an HIV/AIDS unit.
MAPUTSOE: Boasting 55 541 inhabitants (2016 census), this bustling border town is the second most populous urban centre in the country after the capital city. It is located about 86 kilometres north of Maseru, and lies close to Ficksburg in the Free State, which can be reached via the bridge across the Mohokare (Caledon) River – the principal crossing point between Lesotho and South Africa. Maputsoe is also an important industrial centre, although early industries such as maize milling and the manufacturing of furniture, electric light fittings, tractors and shoes, have been overtaken in importance by the garments industry.
LERIBE (HLOTSE): Situated north of Maseru and close to the Maputsoe (Ficksburg Bridge) border post, Leribe’s population had reached 38 558 by the time of the 2016 census. The town was originally named ‘Hlotse’ after the nearby river, but is more commonly called ‘Leribe’ after the district, which was in turn named after the French Catholic Mission in the vicinity. There are a number of shops as well as a busy market, with the Leribe Craft Centre selling beautiful handmade mohair items.
Hlotse was important during Lesotho’s colonial era and remains one of the kingdom’s larger centres. It was founded in 1876 when the resident magistrate and an Anglican missionary were granted permission to build by the local chief. The Anglican Church dates from 1877 and is the oldest building in the town. During the Gun War of 1880-1881 the small fort at the mission was often under siege by the Basotho. Major Bell’s Tower is part of the original fort and remains a landmark on the main street. There is also a cemetery which dates back to that era of military conflict. One of the best examples of dinosaur footprints preserved in sandstone can be seen at Subeng Stream, about 7 kilometres north of Hlotse and an easy walk from the main Hlotse-Botha-Bothe road.
A suspended footbridge is presently being built between Hlotse and Likhakeng over the Hlotse River.
OXBOW: This small village is situated to the east of Botha-Bothe, past the Liphofung Cave Cultural Historical Site and through spectacular mountain vistas where the tarred road traverses the Moteng Pass. Oxbow is one of the few places on the continent to offer snow-skiing, and the area contains Africa’s highest ski resort at AfriSki. The 67-kilometre road between Oxbow and Mapholaneng, which passes the Letšeng diamond mine, has been upgraded. The tarred road from Oxbow to Mokhotlong follows the original ‘Roof of Africa’ rally route through spectacular mountain ranges and over Tlaeeng Pass, which is Lesotho’s highest at 3 275 metres.
MOKHOTLONG: Mokhotlong, which was founded as a police post, is the district headquarters of one of the most remote and isolated areas in Lesotho, with a population of 12 940. While the village is now linked to the rest of the country via the A1, A3 and A31, and South Africa via the Sani Pass, winter conditions can be extreme, and snowfalls are still able to cut Mokhotlong off from the outside world for several days at a time.
This is a scenic locale for walking and climbing, and the mountaineers’ chalet at Sani Top is a good base from which to ascend the majestic Thabana-Ntlenyana – Africa’s highest peak south of Mount Kilimanjaro. Sani Top has one of the highest pubs in Africa and is a wonderful spot to take in the beautiful scenery of the Mountain Kingdom.
The 47-kilometre road between Mokhotlong and Sani Top has been upgraded to bitumen standard, opening up this formerly inaccessible area to tourism and trade. In addition, the construction of Polihali Dam as part of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, will spur development in the area.
SEMONKONG: The small trading post of Semonkong has just 7 856 inhabitants (2016 census), and can be found approximately 130 kilometres southeast of Maseru in the beautiful Thaba Putsoa mountain range. Founded in the 1880s by Basotho fleeing the Gun War, Semonkong is today a handy base from which to see the surrounding attractions.
The town, whose name means the ‘Place of Smoke’, is thought to derive its name from the spray which rises from the Maletsunyane Falls some 5 kilometres downriver. In addition to the impressive 204-metre-high Maletsunyane Falls, which constitute the highest single-drop waterfall in Southern Africa, the lovely Ketane Falls (situated one day’s pony trek away) are another highlight.
These days Semonkong also plays host to two annual events on Lesotho’s cultural calendar: the Maletsunyane Braai Festival, which is held against the backdrop of the Maletsunyane Falls; and the Semonkong Horse Race, which takes place every July with the main aim of commemorating King Letsie’s birthday.
MALEALEA: Situated an 80-minute drive south of Maseru, the rural village of Malealea is a perfect base for visitors entering Lesotho. Set amidst awe-inspiring mountain scenery near the aptly-named Gates of Paradise Pass, it is also regarded as one of the country’s top adventure destinations, boasting beautiful valleys and hills that are ideal for hiking or pony trekking to attractions such as Botso’ela Waterfall, Pitseng gorge and plateau, and Ribaneng Waterfall. There are good San rock paintings here, while visits to the surrounding villages offer visitors an authentic view of local culture and the traditional Basotho way of life.
THABA-TSEKA: The administrative centre of the mountainous district of Thaba-Tseka – the ‘Mountain with a Blaze’ – the town of Thaba-Tseka was built during the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. This had a profound effect on the area: from infrastructural developments such as improved road networks to a skills training centre to help residents empower themselves. The Thaba-Tseka Technical Institute has subsequently provided training courses, business advice and technical services to the surrounding community for over two decades.
The full panorama of Lesotho’s scenic splendour is on view along the route from Mohale to Katse via Thaba-Tseka. The Likalaneng-Thaba-Tseka road is currently being upgraded, and further construction and renovation of roads in the district is making this centre considerably more accessible and tourist-friendly, with the completed network to link Maseru-Katse-Leribe. Places of interest in the vicinity include Katse Dam, Katse Botanical Gardens and Bokong Nature Reserve.
MAFETENG: Sitting about 76 kilometres south of Maseru, this is the closest town to the Van Rooyens Gate border post and boasts a population of 39 754. An administrative and commercial hub, Mafeteng was a garrison town during the Gun War of 1880-1881. The cemetery contains an obelisk commemorating members of the Cape forces who fell in action, while the Residency once served as a hospital. The town and its environs also played an important role in Lesotho’s early literary history. The first locally-owned printing works was established in 1904 at Ha Khojane, 10 kilometres west of the town. The newspaper ‘Naledi ea Lesotho’ was printed there from 1904 onwards and distributed across southern Africa.
MOHALE’S HOEK: Situated close to the Makhaleng Bridge border post and surrounded by the lovely Mokhele Mountains, Mohale’s Hoek is some two hours’ drive along the A2 from Maseru – a distance of 123 kilometres. When Lesotho became a British protectorate in 1868, Mohale’s Hoek became the district headquarters. The years since independence have seen an airstrip constructed here as well as a small industrial estate, and the population had grown to 40 040 by the time of the 2016 census.
QUTHING (Moyeni): Characterised by a mix of languages and cultures, Quthing, which is also known as Moyeni (‘Place of the Wind’), lies some 180 kilometres from Maseru in the southernmost part of Lesotho. It is the capital of Quthing District. The colonial district headquarters was moved here from Silver Spruit in 1884 after the Gun War. The town consists of the old colonial administrative centre of Upper Moyeni and the main commercial centre of Lower Moyeni. It has a current population of 27 314. The fascinating rock art to be found in the area was left by the San, who lived in this region for many centuries.
Other nearby attractions worth seeing comprise Lesotho’s most accessible dinosaur footprints, Masitise (Ellenberger’s) Cave House Museum (a national monument), and the twin-spired sandstone church of Villa Maria Mission. There are guided tours to the ruins of the historical Mt Moorosi fortress, where Chief Moorosi was besieged by British troops.
QACHA’S NEK: Qacha’s Nek was founded in 1888 as a mission station, and later became the district’s administrative centre. Archaeological excavations at rock shelters in the area nonetheless suggest that people have lived here for more than 50 000 years. More recent cultural attractions include the lovely St Joseph’s Church and a number of sandstone buildings dating from the colonial era.
This important border town has 15 917 inhabitants (2016 census), and is the nearest entry point into Lesotho from South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Until 1966, it was without direct road links to the rest of the country, meaning supplies had to be procured from the South African town of Matatiele. While these days there is a tarred road all the way to Maseru, air transport remains important and the airstrip is in regular use.
Owing to the region’s high rainfall, the area around Qacha’s Nek is filled with more trees than any other place in Lesotho. The road to Sehlabathebe National Park is currently being upgraded from gravel to tar, a development that looks set to boost economic growth in Qacha’s Nek while opening up the area for visitors to the park.