Lesotho welcomes back its king

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The Independent Online
One of two flags flew upside down and the public-address system ruined the speeches, but the landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho yesterday joined the new democratic spirit of South Africa by reinstating twice-exiled and once dethroned King Mosh oeshoeII.

The presidents of Zimbabwe and Botswana flew in to ensure the ceremony took place, as did representatives of South Africa's President Nelson Mandela and the King of Swaziland, whose Prime Minister arrived resplendent in an orange-patterned toga, a red feather in his hair and a suite of warriors decked out in leopard and antelope skins.

Trying to boost stability in southern Africa since the fall of the last bastion of white rule in Pretoria, regional leaders have worked hard to bring constitutional rule back to Lesotho, the former British protectorate of Basutoland. Lesotho's army, kings and left-wing nationalists have given its 2 million people a bumpy political ride since independence in 1966.

Yesterday's reinstatement of a constitutional monarch crowned a compromise between the Lesotho royal family's network of regional chiefs and the left-wing nationalists in the government of the Prime Minister, the frail 74-year-old Ntsu Mokhehle.

The day's ceremonies in the capital's main football stadium included the curious sight of a monarch returning a throne to his father. The 32-year-old interim King Letsie III abdicated and reverted to his role as Crown Prince with obvious alacrity and relief. One minute he was on the throne, the next sitting in a back row swigging a can of cola.

The 10,000 crowd was more interested in the pageantry than in speeches rendered incomprehensible by the amplification system. A neat British-style drill squad marched up and down in the midday sun to the beat of a respectable brass band. One group of schoolboys was dressed as hunters, with porcupine-quill head-dresses, bows and arrows and woolly loin-cloths. A contingent of Basuto cavalry, many draped in blankets and wearing traditional conical wicker hats, was led by a holy man dressed in skins, brandishing a wooden club with a face carved on its head and chanting hoarsely.

"Just think of it as traditional rap. We don't understand a word of it either," said one of the plainclothes policemen stationed around the stadium perimeter, both to prevent trouble and to take down posters attacking the reinstatement of the monarch.

King Moshoeshoe II, 58, was a law student at Corpus Christi, Oxford and a descendant of the great 19th-century unifier of the Basuto nation, King Moshoeshoe I. But many ordinary people associate his name with political repression and corruption in the Seventies and Eighties, the apparent reason why the army exiled him in 1990 and later dethroned him.

While keeping the throne warm for his father, Letsie staged a palace coup in August last year, when it looked as though Mr Mokhehle and his government were going to dig too deep into the past. But Mr Mokhehle had come to power 15 months earlier with 75 per cent of the vote in Lesotho's first democratic election and regional leaders stepped in to force the rival factions to settle their differences.

"South Africa acted as the regional superpower and played an extremely positive role," said one of the few Western diplomats stationed in Lesotho.

Standing under a green football-club umbrella to shield him from the sun, the thin and elegant King vowed he would never again interfere in politics. He then gave an emotional speech, promising a new era of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Prime Minister was more cautious, saying that the King's reinstatement had been an unpopular measure and that it was up to the monarch to "ignite the feeling of trust .... I expect no further attempts to subvert democracy."

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