Their country bankrupt by the Aids pandemic, thousands of people in Lesotho have asked South Africa to virtually take over the commonwealth kingdom. Hundreds of people marched through the capital Maseru and handed a petition to parliament and the South African High Commission asking that their country be integrated into its giant neighbour, which completely surrounds it.
It comes as South Africa, in a move to tighten its borders before the World Cup, which starts on Friday, has barred thousands of people from Lesotho from crossing its borders. “We have 30,000 signatures. Lesotho is not just landlocked – it is South Africa-locked,” said Vuyani Tyhali, a trade unionist and initiator of the Lesotho People's Charter Movement. “We were a labour reserve for apartheid South Africa. There is no reason for us to exist any longer as a nation with its own currency and army,” he told The Observer newspaper yesterday.
Lesotho is the world's highest country and one of its most beautiful. Much of it is mountains, so there is not much space to grow crops. Therefore it relies massively on South Africa, both for jobs and to buy what is probably its only natural resource – water. For years thousands of Lesotho workers have been forced by the lack of jobs to find work in South African mines. Lesotho also has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV/Aids infection. The impact of Aids has ruined the economy. A third of the population is HIV positive. “Aids has killed us,” said charity director Ntate Manyanye. “Lesotho is fighting for survival. We have a population of about 1.9 million but there may be as many as 400,000 Aids orphans among us. Life expectancy has fallen to 34. We are desperate." The amount of farmers who have died from Aids has hit the amount of food produced and the United Nations now describes 40% of the population as ‘ultra-poor’. "Nurses and teachers are leaving the country because there is no future. You just see everyone dying," said charity volunteer Selloane Taole.
Last Tuesday, South Africa stopped recognising the temporary travel documents Lesotho’s people have used for years to travel in and out of South Africa to work. "Lesotho's inefficient government has not produced passports for five years," said Tyhali. "Thousands of people doing piece jobs over the border are now forced to stay in Lesotho or cross over illegally and face deportation." South Africa has many times help in Lesotho's politics, including in 1998 when it sent its troops to help calm unrest.