Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa.
JOHANNESBURG - The oft-rapturous character of the socio-economic and political landscape in Lesotho is intrinsically intertwined with not only the political developments of its only neighbour, South Africa, but its economic fortunes too.

That South Africa's economy has remained (and continues to be) comatose for almost eight years explains the plight of Lesotho and the revision of South Africa's growth numbers from 1.7percent to 1.2percent.

These figures, low by most standards, can signify more severe problems for Lesotho.

This is because of the strong exploitative historical links of labour migration that South Africa's gold and maize industries meted out to the peoples of the region and, significantly, Lesotho.

As South Africa reels from mediocre economic growth, high unemployment and inequality, the ramifications of this significantly bigger economy in the region and, especially for Lesotho, are not trivial.

It shakes the roots of people in Lesotho.

In his book titled Families Divided: The impact of Migrant Labour in Lesotho, Colin Murray provides a detailed analysis and an exposé of how Lesotho transformed from a prosperous exporter of grain to an impoverished labour reserve.

By 1863, Lesotho was considered a granary of the regional economy, Murray wrote in the 1970s.

I doubt even in his wildest thoughts that Murray contemplated how, 24 years post-apartheid, Lesotho has not only degenerated into deeper poverty, but its society has become more violent.

The roots of this violence to a large degree are buried deep in the systematic destruction of the economies and family life of the labour reserves of which Lesotho was part.

Lesotho's politico-economic, social and cultural practices were such that a young boy would herd his father's sheep at five years.

Then he would graduate to herd cattle by the age of 10, around the same time that he enrolled at primary school. The lad would alternate days between herding cattle and attending school.

Monday is school, Tuesday is cattle herding and Wednesday is school, and so it goes for the week, the month and the year.

By the age of 16, the boys are ready for circumcision, and shortly thereafter the mining career starts in readiness to conclude entry into manhood, with marriage at the age of 22.

But the practice of circumcision was broken through universal access to schooling, which led to boys attending school for significantly longer. However, the cycle for labour migration did not break.

It only assured the mining houses better educated labour and provided as fodder a more conscious workforce, with more a militant trade unionism. The National Union of Mineworkers benefited from this.

At its peak in 1966, Lesotho would supply 23percent of its total population of just above a million as labour to the mining and maize fields of South Africa.

This would be half the male population, and almost 90percent of males aged 20 to 60 years.

The migrant labour from Lesotho increased as Malawi withdrew its migrant labour to the mines subsequent to a stand-off, because of a plane crash that killed several Malawian miners in 1969.

Another historic moment was with the independence of Mozambique, which saw Lesotho's labour supply continuing to grow and being sustained. However, this was an elusive cushion that concealed a deep-seated crisis in the making.

A strategy that apartheid used to counteract the effects of extraterritorial migrant labour was to provide nominal independence to the reserves and draw migrant labour from there.

By then Lesotho experienced almost no unemployment of males, but family life continued to be disrupted.

By the 1980s, first with international sanctions levelled at South Africa and later, in the 1990s, with rapid mechanisation, reality struck home and demand for labour was dampened.

Lesotho's crisis began with no end in sight.

The HIV/Aids pandemic, driven by the now-weakened and rickety family structure, pushed the system to its lowest ebb from whence it continued to oscillate endlessly. Yet worse was to come with the economy of South Africa on its knees over the past 10 years or so.

Three forces have come to bear simultaneously in the Lesotho edifice with devastating effects.

First, the significant reduction in migrant labour against a growing population has meant high unemployment rates in Lesotho.

These are at the same level as those in South Africa - 29percent.

Second, the continued political circus that has seen Lesotho go to elections a number of times even before the term of office of the party that was elected for the five-year mandate ends.

Added to this are threats of (and real procedural but significantly) parliamentary “coups”, which suggest that not all is well.

Third, and most importantly, the protracted low economic performance of its only neighbour, South Africa, which puts Lesotho at serious social crossroads and has led to violence.

The daylight attack on a medical doctor - and the shot that killed his son - at his home in the Mafeteng district last week by a dozen young men in gumboots and blankets demanding money, was not an isolated incident.

Dr Makoa sustained wounds from his body being doused in methylated spirits. Such insane and heartless actions were built on the killing of an elderly mother by boys in Tebang, in the same district, last year.

Four weeks ago, a Chinese trader was abducted and killed in Maseru, and key to this was the demand for money by a similar age group. A man was also killed in the district of Quthing, around the time of the attack on Dr Makoa.

Circumcision schools have now returned strongly in Lesotho and boys are dropping out of school in numbers.

A fashion of gumboots and the specific attire of blankets reflect which gang the member belongs to. Stick fighting has become popular and can be watched on multimedia.

The initiates have become an increasingly important menace in society and have often displayed violence at funerals.

As a new culture of violence takes root in Lesotho, it joins similar levels of violence that plague South Africa, with wanton killings on the Cape Flats and a nyaope culture gripping many townships.

The crisis is growing ever-deeper roots and threatens the future of not only Lesotho and South Africa, but of the region.

A lost demographic dividend is in its completion stages right in front of our eyes. We cannot plead ignorance and innocence.

Colin Murray possibly may confess that his thesis sent warning signs and he would have hoped that these signs were heeded.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

-BUSINESS REPORT