Lesotho is famous for two specific geographical situations in that it is completely surrounded on all four sides by the Republic of South Africa, and its mountainous landscape is Guinness-worthy in that it has the highest lowest point of any country. As a child staring at world maps and borders, I was naturally drawn to Lesotho. I even wrote to the country itself (and not some local tourist bureau) for travel information back in the seventies. I got back a large stamped envelope (addressed to Mississanga, Ontario and not Mississauga, as I recall) filled with brochures and detailed maps. I still have it.
I bought A Short History of Lesotho: From the Late Stone Age Until the 1993 Elections by Stephen J. Gill when I returned to Cape Town after my trip to Tristan da Cunha in October 2013. For a book of only 266 pages, it took me an astonishing eighteen days to finish. I could not get into this book as I found its chronological account of Basotho history sadly boring. I had no desire to read this book other than during my daily meal breaks at work or while in transit. I spent merely one evening at home after work reading it. A certain sign that I am not enjoying a book is that I take so few notes–and for A Short History of Lesotho, I took none at all. I could “review” it by merely picking off chapter titles in the table of contents. The only part of Basotho history that I could take in doses longer than ten pages at a time dealt with its most recent history, its time as an independent nation. Lesotho celebrated its semicentennial in October of this year but at the time of publication the country had only had twenty-seven years of independence.
Black-and-white photos and maps fill the book which I appreciated since Gill made frequent references to south African geography, mountain ranges, rivers and other towns. I had first read in Eric Rosenthal’s African Switzerland that when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, the country retained the right to annex Lesotho (as well as Swaziland). Gill elaborated on this, and that the Union threatened Lesotho several times with this legal takeover yet the Basotho always resisted. Lesotho as entirely surrounded by South Africa was always fearful of losing its sovereignty to this particular South African clause, yet the country never withheld its criticisms of South Africa’s apartheid system. Lesotho found out that being critical of South Africa’s racist policies resulted in increased international aid, so the mouse continued to roar. While apartheid was still in effect Lesotho provided the RSA with cheap migrant labour, which declined after the introduction of racial equality. Gill wrote about the transition from local governments of chieftains and kings to a constitutional democracy with a prime minister and ceremonial king. Lesotho has been more stable than other nations in Africa yet it did suffer a coup in 1986. Biographies of all Basotho kings were included, from Moshoeshoe I to the present king Letsie III.