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Lesotho dispatches envoy to Ramaphosa

  • as tensions simmer between LDF and SANDF

’Marafaele Mohloboli

DEPUTY Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu will this week lead a delegation to South Africa to engage President Cyril Ramaphosa over the fractious relations between the two countries’ defence forces.

Mr Mokhothu’s delegation is expected to meet with President Ramaphosa either tomorrow or Tuesday.

Although there have already been ongoing diplomatic engagements between Maseru and Pretoria, this week’s meetings are meant to mend souring relations between the two countries’ defence forces. This after two South African National Defence Force soldiers and two SA immigration officers were arrested at Gateway filling station on the Lesotho side of the Maseru border on Thursday.

The arrests came on the back of similar arrests of two Lesotho Defence Force officers Rorisang Moepi and Dumile Tšoanyane in Matatiele, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa last month. The duo had been patrolling the border area in Qacha’s Nek when they allegedly tracked animals belonging to Lesotho villagers that had been driven into South Africa by thieves. They were then caught on the South African side with their service weapons but without permits.

The Thursday arrests of South African officers have therefore been viewed as a revenge mission, as it has always been common practice for South African officials to drive to Lesotho to fuel their vehicles. Fuel is much cheaper in Lesotho because of a government fuel subsidy system.

The South African quartet was fuelling two private cars at Gateway filling station when they were arrested by LDF officers who were patrolling the Maseru border area. They did not have passports on them when they were arrested.

The LDF officers handed the quartet over to the police after they failed to produce the passports nor permits allowing them to cross into Lesotho in line with anti-Covid 19 regulations.

According to police spokesperson, Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, all four officers are based in Ladybrand.

After spending the night at the Maseru Police Headquarters, Corporals Zibuse Herringtin Mbhense (48), Muzikawulahlwa Shandu (46), Mr Mfundo Mazibuko (38) and Ms Lipuo Lebese (39) appeared at the Maseru Magistrate Court on Friday. They were charged with contravening Section 30 (b) of the Public Health (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 and section 33 of the Aliens Control Act No. 16 of 1966.

The matter was presided over by Senior Resident Magistrate Peter Murenzi while Lehlohonolo Phooko appeared for the state. They are still in Lesotho custody and are expected back in court on 27 August 2020.

Foreign Affairs and International Relations Minister ‘Matšepo Molise Ramakoae yesterday said a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu would depart Maseru tomorrow or Tuesday depending on Mr Ramaphosa’s availability.

She said the engagements were meant to avoid a diplomatic tiff between the two countries given that Lesotho relies on its rich neighbour for many goods and services.

Ms Ramakoae said the delegation would also continue with ongoing engagements to improve the manner in which Basotho seeking goods and services in South Africa during the current lockdown period were treated.

Because of the geographical location of Lesotho, it is important for the two countries to come up with laws and practices that do not make lives of the two country’s people difficult, she said.

“While there were ongoing diplomatic engagements between the two heads of state (Dr Majoro and Mr Ramaphosa), we did not expect the issue about the LDF officers who were arrested in Matatiele would need to be escalated to a diplomatic level,” Ms Ramakoae said.

“However, the situation has been bad considering that we have dispatched five teams to visit the officers where they are being held in South Africa. The fifth team failed to see them. We have been requesting that they be allowed to visit a doctor but they have been barred.

“We never thought it was necessary to escalate the matter to a diplomatic level because the two countries’ security officials are always collaborating in cross border crime prevention activities.”

She said prior to the two’s arrests, Dr Majoro had already started engagements with Mr Ramaphosa to come up with policies that would allow Basotho to easily seek medical and agricultural inputs and services in South Africa in preparation for the upcoming summer cropping season.

Mr Mokhothu also tweeted about his South Africa trip yesterday.

“I will lead a delegation to hold talks with President Cyril Ramaphosa with a view to arriving at an amicable solution following the arrest of LDF officers in South Africa and the recent arrest of SANDF and border officials in the Kingdom of Lesotho,” tweeted Mr Mokhothu.

When they were arrested, Messrs Moepi and Tšoanyane were chasing thieves who crossed into South Africa. However, it is alleged that SANDF officers defended the alleged thieves prompting an exchange of fire. The LDF officers were however, cornered into surrendering and were apprehended.

Efforts by LDF superiors to negotiate their release have been fruitless. Days after their arrest, it was alleged that they would be released into the custody of Lesotho authorities but instead, they were later hauled before the Maluti Magistrate Court in Matatiele.

They were charged with stock theft, illegal immigration, robbery with aggravating circumstances, possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition and contravention of the Disaster Management Act which bars movement between the two countries during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

Messrs Moepi and Tšoanyane were represented by Legal Aid as the LDF and its lawyers didn’t have permission to travel to South Africa due to Covid-19 regulations which have kept the borders between the two countries shut except for essential services.

However, Legal Aid (South Africa) has since withdrawn its services alleging it was overwhelmed with cases.

In a Friday statement, Defence and National Security Minister Prince Maliehe said: “The LDF authorities and families of the officers attempted to visit the duo which was due to appear for bail application on 19 August but were barred entry (into South Africa) due to Covid-19 regulations”.

He said the matter had been escalated to the defence ministries of both countries.

South African High Commissioner Sello Moloto told the Sunday Express the matters of the arrests of the South African officers and that of the LDF officers was now being handled at a higher level.

“The matters are now being discussed at the highest level and are both getting the attention they warrant.”

He said army authorities in South Africa would soon find an amicable way of resolving the “misunderstandings”.

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