Deputy PM admits SA gave travel document notice
Bongiwe Zihlangu & Ntsebeng Motsoeli
MASERU — Deputy Prime Minister Lesao Lehohla (pictured below) has admitted the government bungled when it ignored South Africa’s warning four months ago that it would not accept one-page temporary travel documents.
Lehohla, who is also the home affairs minister, spoke on Thursday as South Africa’s immigration authorities continued to turn away Basotho who wanted to cross into the country using temporary travel documents.
He made the startling admission a day after his meeting with South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to resolve the crisis came to naught.
In the past two weeks thousands of people have failed to cross into South Africa which has vowed to continue tightening controls at its 14 border posts with Lesotho.
Lehohla’s diplomatic efforts failed to persuade the South African government to rethink its new tough immigration regulations.
Lehohla said Dlamini-Zuma had told him that the border controls were there to stay.
A subdued Lehohla told a press conference that he had underestimated the impact that South Africa’s border controls would have on Basotho.
“I have been damn stupid to have not been aware of the scale of the problem,” he said.
“But the inter-border crisis has been an opportunity for us to do the right thing.”
The Lesotho government, Lehohla said, had been warned in February that South Africa was planning to ban the use of one-page temporary travel documents and should therefore have been better prepared.
He said part of the reason for the delayed reaction was because the government had not cleaned up the corruption and problems in the Passport Services Department.
The department has a backlog of nearly 200 000 applicants.
Most people who are waiting for their passports submitted their applications as far back as 2006.
Lehohla said apart from limited facilities and human resources in the department, the public had also contributed to the backlog by bribing passport officials to get passports quickly.
“Basotho are very deceitful and have the syndrome of leaning to bribery,” Lehohla said.
“Basotho have taken to making multiple passport applications as they usually exhaust their period of stay in South Africa and destroy their passports as a result.
“The fight against multiple passport applications is a major challenge and we need to tackle it as best we can.
“It also indicates that our systems are easily manipulated.”
He said to curb corruption in the department the government should employ people who are “well customised, prepared and trained around the sensitivity and importance of a passport”.
Lehohla told the press conference that Dlamini-Zuma had told him that the new temporary travel documents that Lesotho recently introduced did not meet South Africa’s security requirements.
“According to South African authorities our permit is lacking in required security features and will therefore no longer function as a means of entry into South Africa,” he said.
Dlamini-Zuma, he added, told him that even if the new documents were approved they would only be used to enter South Africa for “emergency purposes”.
“I admitted to (Dlamini-Zuma) that I did not realise the scale of the complexity of our permit,” Lehohla said.
“She told me that the security measures taken were not to hurt Lesotho and its people.
“She said it was done in the best interest of security, not to make Lesotho unhappy and uncomfortable.”
Lehohla said the special “six months” permit that allows Lesotho citizens to enter South Africa without having their passports stamped will not be renewed once they expire.
Meanwhile, there seems to be discord in the government over whether or not South Africa warned Lesotho about the new stringent border controls.
Lehohla said the government knew about it as far back as February.
But speaking at the same press conference, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohlabi Tsekoa struck a different tune.
He claimed South Africa had not consulted Lesotho before it banned the use of the temporary travel document.
South Africa, Tsekoa said, “does not always engage Lesotho on border issues”.
In a statement issued before the press conference, Tsekoa repeated the same claims with regards to South Africa’s decision to phase out the six months permits and introduce a transit visa for tourists who wanted to visit Lesotho during the 2010 World Cup.
He said he had called a meeting with South Africa’s High Commissioner to Lesotho to register “concern” over the border control measures.
Tsekoa said he had also written to South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabana about the issue.
“These measures were implemented without consultation with the government of Lesotho,” he said in the press statement.
“The British acted nobly enough by informing us six months beforehand that Basotho would in future be required to acquire visas to gain entry into England.
“It is the fervent hope of the government of Lesotho that the Fifa World Cup of which we are all proud and happy to support can be able to proceed smoothly without causing so much suffering to the people of Lesotho.”
Tsekoa however said he understood why South Africa had implemented the tough border measures.
“The United Nations released a report indicating that South Africa is the weakest link in southern Africa where human and drug-trafficking and terrorism are concerned,” he said.
“It also emerged that criminals have been found to be in possession of Lesotho passports.
“These issues also contributed immensely in worsening the situation.”