OBITUARY: King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho

Benjamin Pogrund
Tuesday 16 January 1996 00:02 GMT

Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho was an ill-starred king. His reign began in subservience - his country was ruled by Britain - and it ended when his authority among his own people was uncertain. He was buffeted over the years by the struggles for power in Lesotho, and for much of the time he was forced to bend the knee to political overlords. He was twice sent into exile and once dethroned. From beginning to end his life reflected the unceasing conflicts among the fewer than 2 million Basotho whose mountain country is entirely surrounded by South Africa.

Constantine Bereng Seeiso, born in 1938, was the descendant and bore the name of Moshoeshoe, the 19th-century warrior who founded the Basotho nation. He became king when Lesotho's independence was restored in 1966. He studied at Roma College in Lesotho, but amid anxiety that his stepfather was seeking to poison him was sent to Ampleforth College in Britain and went on to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Spending holidays with a landed family in the west of England he took to fishing, shooting and riding to hounds.

He turned 21 while still engaged with his PPE degree at Oxford, and wrote to the Regent in Lesotho to note that he wanted to assume his rightful title at home. That he did, and led the Basotho to independence. But he was soon tussling with the elected prime minister, Leabua Jonathan, for greater executive power. Jonathan accused him of conspiring with the opposition to bring down the government and temporarily placed him under house arrest. That was but a curtain-raiser to Jonathan's seizing power in 1970. Moshoeshoe was sent into exile in Holland for eight months and allowed to return only on condition that he kept out of politics.

The next 20 years of Jonathan's autocratic rule left Moshoeshoe kicking his heels on the sidelines, a figurehead king despite his undoubted popularity. His elegance and his natural courtesy were no match for Jonathan's wiliness. He could do little but indicate his criticisms of the government. Nor did his position ease after a military coup in 1990. For he was again in conflict over the extent of his power and was sent into exile in Britain. He was deposed and his eldest son was put on the throne as Letsie III.

Landlocked Lesotho is totally vulnerable to South Africa: its economic existence is dependent on its neighbour through export of workers, especially for gold-mining. They remit US$500m each year, accounting for nearly half of Lesotho's gross national product. South African interference originally helped to bring Jonathan to power and kept him there, and then brought him down when he became over-critical of the apartheid across the border. The changes of the 1990s in South Africa in their turn served to return Moshoeshoe to Lesotho and to the throne; in search of stability, regional leaders led by President Nelson Mandela negotiated restoration of constitutional rule. In January last year, Letsie thankfully yielded the throne to Moshoeshoe.

But Moshoeshoe still had an uneasy passage in defining his powers in relation to the current government of Prime Minister Ntsu Mohehle - who, paradoxically, although left-wing and nationalist, owes his place in Lesotho to help from the South Africa of apartheid times. Moshoeshoe's sudden death yesterday, reportedly in a car accident while travelling from his royal village to the capital, Maseru, interrupts that evolution, and leaves question-marks over the role of the king.

I first met Moshoeshoe when Britain was the colonial power and he had the title of Paramount Chief. As a reporter with the then Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg I was granted an interview but a Colonial Office offical warned me that under no circumstances was I to address him as "Your Majesty". Britain had the Queen and no competitor was to be allowed, it seemed. Whitehall had coined some other Sesotho term for him, which was supposed to convey the idea of majesty without actually saying it. But I knew that Moshoeshoe was venerated as king by the Basotho. So throughout the opportunity I seized every opportunity to toss in "Your Majesty". Each time, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the official who was sitting in on the interview go red in the face.

Some 30 years later, while Moshoeshoe was still in exile, he invited me to a weekend conference of interested people held outside London to create an Institute for Democracy in Africa. The institute was innovative and significant: it was one of the early statements by African leaders that it was primarily up to Africa to rescue itself from its troubles and that fostering democracy was the first step. There was a certain piquancy in having a king engaged in the pursuit of democracy.

Apart from the serious discussions of the conference, I had pleasure in sitting down to breakfast each morning next to Moshoeshoe and saying "Good morning, Your Majesty".

Benjamin Pogrund

Constantine Bereng Seeiso: born 2 May 1938; Paramount Chief of Basutoland 1960-66; crowned 1966 King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho; exiled from Lesotho 1970; stripped of constitutional powers February 1990; dethroned November 1990; in exile in the UK 1990-92; reinstated as King January 1995; married 1962 Princess Tabitha Masentle (two sons, one daughter); died 15 January 1996.

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