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Pretoria - High-level talks are ongoing between the transport ministries of South Africa and Lesotho to diffuse tensions between taxi operators that led to the closure of the Maseru Bridge border post this week.
Transport department spokesman Tiyani Rikhotso said Minister Dipuo Peters had delegated officials to meet with their Basotho counterparts and taxi associations to address the situation.
The stand-off was sparked by the Basotho drivers' persistence to ferry passengers across the busy bridge and on to South African destinations.
In doing so, they were defying agreements that had been in place since 2005, according to South African taxi operators.
TJ Pitso, public relations officer for the Manyatseng Taxi Association on the South African side of the border post, said they accommodated Basotho operators without a problem over the years.
“They would take passengers across the border for Manyatseng taxis to ferry across South Africa,” he said.
However, out of the blue, the drivers from Lesotho retreated across the border to their country, started loading the passengers and insisted on transporting them across South Africa, according to Pitso.
The South Africans were having none of that and prevented taxis from Lesotho from driving past their rank, located just outside the border post.
Basotho operators, meanwhile, alleged their taxis were attacked as they attempted to cross into South Africa, prompting them to park on the bridge border post in protest.
Citizens of both countries were extremely inconvenienced, and no one could drive or walk across the bridge, including children from Lesotho who attend school in the nearby Free State town of Ladybrand.
Trucks transporting goods between the two countries were stranded at the border post for almost two days by the time the bridge was reopened on Thursday.
Makalo Matekane, a taxi owner and coordinator from Maseru, said blocking the border post was a retaliation after South African drivers attacked them and prevented them from entering this country.
Matekane said two taxis bound for Gauteng were attacked and passengers injured in what he described as contravention of the agreement by southern African countries to allow cross border taxi operating.
Maseru businesswoman Malichaba Lekhoaba said even private cars with more than two people were stopped, searched and the passengers hauled out as they entered the South African territory.
“The drivers wanted everyone to use their taxis and felt that people in private had picked up hikers,” she said.
Matekane said their drivers had since ceased fire and would never block the border post again but would instead protect the welfare of passengers.
However, he said they wanted to ferry passengers across the border post in line with the agreement by regional countries.
Mantsebo Matsoanakaba, manager of Immigration Services in Lesotho, said the movement of people between Lesotho and South Africa was severely affected between Sunday and Thursday.
“This is not right. People have a democratic right to movement and those in smaller countries are always going to seek greener pastures in an economic powerhouse like South Africa.
“Taxi drivers have no right to deny them that right. Children stranded on the South African side unable to get home were crying.
“There was no trade between the two countries for more than 48 hours, and that is not acceptable.”
Matsoanakaba said the events of this week could not be viewed in isolation and would negatively affect the relationship between South Africa and Lesotho if not resolved.
“Taxi driver in South Africa did not act appropriately, but their Basotho counterparts had no business blocking an international border post,” Matsoanakaba said.
Meanwhile, business executives and government officials were among those stranded on the Maseru Bridge border post.
Mantsebo Matsoanakaba, manager of Immigration Services even drove a stranger's car for two days and has since become good friends with the owner, Lebohang Hlaelo and his family.
Matsoanakaba and other senior government officials had gone to the border post to defuse tensions.
When their efforts failed, she walked across the bridge to South African soil in her high heel shoes and not dressed properly for the cold weather conditions.
Once in the Free State, she had no way to get home. However, she met Haelo, whose wife was waiting for him in Maseru.
Matsoanakaba took his car, which could not cross the blocked border post, and drove home to Ladybrand, having exchanged numbers and personal details with Hlaelo.
Most business people and government officials in Maseru live in the Free State town and driver across the border post daily.
In Maseru, Hlaelo took Matsoanakaba car and drive into the Basotho capital for a meeting.
The two drove each other's car until the bridge was reopened on Thursday.
Malichaba Lekhoaba, owner of Harvest FM in Maseru, normally takes just a few minutes to drive her home, also in Ladybrand.
But on Tuesday, Lekhoaba had to change the route she had used for seven days and exit the Mountain Kingdom at the Ficksburg border post.
“It took me a very long time to reach home, where my two children awaited,” she said.
“On Wednesday, I stayed at home and returned to work on Thursday after learning the border post had been opened.”