Lesotho - the neglected tragedy


There is only one railway between Bloemfontein, the judicial capital of South Africa, and Maseru, the capital of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Yet it is a branch line – this is perhaps the perfect metaphor for Lesotho’s position: a small, neglected nation whose entire existence depends on and is overshadowed by its much larger neighbour – South Africa. As such Lesotho is uniquely exposed to the latter’s chronic instability and poor governance. The country’s problems are unfortunately not limited to this however.

The country’s geography can be divided into two parts, the lowlands to the west (containing the capital Maseru) and the highlands to the east, meaning that there is even less land available for development in the first place. Clearly this impedes regional connectivity since everything has to flow through Maseru and across the western South African border, with extremely limited potential for infrastructure development to the east due to the dangerous and as yet insufficiently tarmacked Sani Pass. Yet these mountains offer, according to the US Department of Commerce, “one of the most pristine and unspoiled natural environments in the region, with spectacular scenery and a huge potential for eco-tourism.  The rugged countryside makes Lesotho ideal for off-road sports”. At present a small number of South Africans cycle in the wild mountains to the east, while the country is also home to Afriski which is one of only two ski resorts in southern Africa as well as the world’s longest commercially operated abseil, Maletsunyane, which is just over 200m tall! These ventures demonstrate the potential that this country’s natural environment holds which looks incredibly promising when the major cities of Durban and Bloemfontein are not too far away. Moreover the road in Lesotho which awaits survivors of the Sani Pass is surprisingly modern and tarmacked, so it is clear the Lesotho government considers this route important as well – the only problem is that phase 3 on the South African side is yet to be started, leaving a dangerous dirt track for about 9km of the way. Clearly this needs to be completed as soon as possible in order to benefit the local economies of both countries.

When the nation’s natural capital, dominated by water and diamond exports, makes up 88% of GDP, it is evident more government economic stimuli are required to provide oxygen to an economy whose rate of GDP growth last year stood at just 0.6% according to the World Bank. As does not need to be explained, any kind of job growth would be crucial for the country: there are only so many jobs in the water (and dam construction) and diamond industry, which has surely fed into an atmosphere of hopelessness. The country’s suicide rate stands at 87.5 people per 100,000 which is an actual increase of 44.9% and a relative increase of 105%, making Lesotho the suicide capital of the world.

This leads onto two of the great malaises of Lesotho: the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a flood of gang-related violence. The latter is perpetrated by ‘Famo’ gangs, so-called due to their music genre of choice which surprisingly includes accordions, who operate illegal gold mines outside the country in South Africa since there is such a lack of work for young people back in Lesotho (the youth unemployment rate stood at 26.7% in 2022). The ensuing conflicts and rivalries forged in the bush of South Africa feed back into the enclave, where rival gang members’ families are routinely hunted down and killed despite having no links to what goes on next door. Despite the obvious damage to the country, corrupt security officials as well as some politicians from the previous coalition government all had links to the ‘Famo’ gangs, reports the Maseru Metro, making any attempt at putting an end to their activities almost impossible. The same report details how the World Population Review puts the current homicide rate at 43.56 per 100,000 people, ranking it third in the world and first in Africa. Who would want to invest in or even visit such a country where basic security is anything but guaranteed? A recent Al-Jazeera documentary on the gangs, shows the police having a single pick-up truck to track down and arrest the gangs.

In order to try to give a proper understanding of the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Lesotho, I’ll start with the data. A third of the country’s deaths in 2019 were attributed to an HIV infection, which equates to 581.38 deaths per 100,000 people (shockingly this represents an absolute change of 548.96% and a relative one of 1,693% since 1990). Both of these rank Lesotho first in the world in terms of HIV deaths, and although the country’s prevalence rate has decreased enormously since 1997, it remains at just under 1 in 4 people, second only to nearby eSwatini.


On first glance these are grim reading, and they are, but at least we can be thankful that this is vastly reduced from twenty years ago when the death rate was about five times higher. Evidently this impacts the kingdom’s economy in two ways: it discourages foreign direct investment and cripples productivity due to the costs of regular medical treatment and absences. Nor does it help that the most affected demographic is the rural, working-age population whom it can be difficult to reach – this therefore compounds the effects of climate change on these subsistence farmers who have suffered poor harvests in recent years. It would be easy to jump to conclusions that Lesotho’s government is to blame therefore, yet its approach is laudable: in 2016 Lesotho’s Ministry of Health launched the “Test and Treat” initiative in which every HIV-positive person is offered ART, regardless of viral load count. This was the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa and the coverage of ART treatment stands at 86% according to UNAIDS.

The greater challenge would therefore appear to be funding, both domestic (though corruption is also an issue here) and international since Lesotho has a limited global profile in relation to other sub-Saharan countries. This could be because Lesotho is not in the top 20 poorest countries by GDP per capita, but it is nevertheless shocking that this country receives so little attention from the international development community given what has been detailed above. Even Médecins sans Frontières no longer has a presence in the country, having briefly returned during the Covid-19 pandemic, while more poverty-related charities have a very limited presence. This is despite the fact half the country continues to live in poverty while the life expectancy of the average Bosotho is third worst in the world, at just 53.1 years. The government should not be exonerated however – the literacy rate in the country has managed to fall seven percentage points since 2000 to 79% for example. Evidently, the nation’s funding and governance situation should be the first priority in order to attempt to improve conditions, though it goes without saying that a broad collaborative effort without targeting scapegoats is of the utmost importance. As a final aside, Coplan and Quinlan in their, “A Chief by the People: Nation versus State in Lesotho” article, assert that a system of chieftaincy informally governs the rural areas despite the presence of a Prime Minister as head of government, in the constitutional monarchy system. It goes without saying that such factionalism could hinder the central government’s ambitions and objectives, and thus preventing equal development across the country with the risk of regional feuds being another investor or project deterrent.  

Back to that railway, and infrastructure more generally. Nowadays the only traffic on the railway which was opened about 120 years ago is freight, with passenger services a distant memory. This freight transport is important, yet it is obvious that if proper investment were put into it by both Lesotho and South Africa, this would reduce congestion and increase efficiency as regards the trade between the two countries. And this would be a lifeline for the Lesotho economy, whose exports would be able to reach South Africa more cheaply and potentially faster, which is Lesotho’s main trading partner and whose ports are vital for Lesotho’s overseas exports. Another benefit of improved railway infrastructure would be a decreased demand for fossil fuels due to the greater efficiencies of railways over cars/lorries, and so this would help reduce the Mosotho trade deficit, driven by petroleum imports (since these are by far the nation’s biggest import.  Moreover this would promote greater economic union with South Africa which is absolutely vital in putting an end to the mountain kingdom’s economic neglect, despite its neighbour’s own problems generally. Given the Lesotho Loti is pegged to the South African Rand, it is uniquely vulnerable to the instability of the Rainbow Nation, yet it also means that this is one less barrier to trade with or through the country. Therefore Lesotho has to integrate with the South African economy as much as possible, since Lesotho has fundamentally no other choice, though I mean this more in the physical sense because the two countries are both part of the Southern Africa Customs Union. If (and it is a big if) Lesotho were able to stabilise and make itself securer than its larger neighbour, this would be a major selling point for the country since it would act as an island of stability from which economic activity could flow out of and into South Africa.

As I bring this piece to a close, the plight of this neglected nation is evident yet it is equally a mystery as to why it is treated thus, even by NGOs. More importantly, as I have tried to outline, there is a lot of promise for Lesotho and without sounding cliché, a brighter future is possible – if the world wants to fund it. And there is evidence for this: since 2000, exports have doubled from circa $450 million to $1.07 billion in 2021 while access to energy has rocketed from a mere 4% in 2000 to 47.35% in 2020 thanks to the Highlands Water Project, though there is clearly still a lot of work to be done, there is a path to greater general prosperity for Lesotho.