Today In History: Sixty ANC Refugees Airlifted Out of Lesotho – 25 January 1986

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Funeral of victims of The Maseru raid, unofficially referred to as “operation blanket”. 

ON 25 January 1986, Sixty (60) African National Congress (ANC) activists left Lesotho by plane for Lusaka following a total blockage of Lesotho by South Africa’s apartheid regime. It demanded the tiny land-locked country hand-over ANC members to South African forces. Within a couple of weeks, Lesotho came to a standstill.

According to Robert Scott Jaster, in his book “The Defence of White Power: South African Foreign Policy under Pressure”, the blockade was triggered by a landmine incident near the Lesotho border which claimed the lives of six South Africans two weeks earlier. In retaliation South African Defence Force (SADF) members stormed houses in Lesotho and killed several Basotho including ANC members.

Lesotho had also refused to sign the Nkomati-type pact with South Africa the year before.

On January 20, Lesotho’s military deposed Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan in a near-bloodless coup. The National Assembly was dissolved, and executive and legislative powers were vested in the king. Major General Metsing Lekhanya became the military head of state and he met the South African foreign minister and agreed to expel all ANC members. General Lekhanya said his country would continue to offer political activists sanctuary but would not allow active members. He announced he”saw no need” to sign an Nkomati type pact with South Africa and refused to close down the Eastern Bloc embassies in Lesotho.

Given the nature of the South African apartheid regime and the opposition to it by all the African states, the “captive states” – Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, which are wholly or predominantly surrounded by South Africa were easily subjected to economic and other pressures mounted by South Africa.

In the case of Lesotho, the poorest among the three, the majority of its male population worked in the South African mines and their remittances contribute, even today, substantially to the country’s GDP. Due to it’s geographic situation, Lesotho became a haven for those fleeing South Africa during the apartheid years. By 1980 for example, there were an estimated 11,500 refugees from South Africa in Lesotho with a large number belonging to the ANC.

Following the 1976 Student Uprisings, South Africa was condemned by the world and Lesotho joined in the condemnation. The country’s leader at the time, Chief Leabua Jonathan, also refused to recognise South Africa’s bantustan, Transkei, as an independent state.

As a result of mounting pressure globally and from neighbouring countries, South Africa began devising tactics to destabilise its neighbours.

On 9 December 1982, South Africa carried out a pre-dawn raid on a number of homes in Lesotho in which scores of South Africans (whom the South African government referred to as well trained terrorists) “and Basotho were mercilessly killed in this barbarous act of aggression. Homes were destroyed, houses gutted by fire and bombed from the air in this cold-blooded massacre.

Among the widely known ANC members based in Lesotho was Tembi Hani, (labelled as the “most wanted”), ANC chief in Lesotho and a reputed member of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Siswe and his wife, Limpho Hani, who was the secretary of the ANC Women’s League in Lesotho. The aim of the raid was not only to get the ANC members out of Lesotho but also to kill them: twelve Basotho and thirty South Africans died”. http://www.archivalplatform.org/blog/entry/memorialising_a/


Letter from Oliver Tambo to the Prime Minister of Lesotho, Dr. Leabua Jonathan, 13 January 1982

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Oliver Reginald Tambo

We received with great shock and anger the news of the brazen and outrageous invasion of the Kingdom of Lesotho by the racist South African army on December 9th. The multiple murders of Lesotho nationals and South African refugees, members of the African National Congress, committed by this squad of assassins must surely fill every person of conscience with a deep sense of revulsion.

At this hour of grief for both our peoples, who are further united by the blood we have both shed, we extend our deep-felt condolences to Your Excellency, the Government and people of Lesotho and request that Your Excellency convey these condolences to the relatives of the deceased Lesotho nationals.

We hereby wish to express our profound appreciation of the reaffirmation by the Government of the Kingdom of Lesotho of its continued determination to receive South African refugees who flee to Lesotho. We further wish to convey to Your Excellency our complete and unequivocal support for your initiative in requesting an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to consider this latest act of aggression by the apartheid regime.

We pledge our continued commitment to support the Kingdom of Lesotho with all means in our power in her struggle to consolidate her independence and defend her sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This coldly calculated act of terrorism will only serve to spur the ANC and the people of South Africa to redouble their efforts to remove once and for all the criminal Pretoria regime, the common enemy of the peoples of Africa.

Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurances of the highest fraternal esteem of our National Executive Committee as well as my own.

Oliver Tambo


Relations between South Africa deteriorated sharply during 1983 and the friction continued for several years thereafter.

Sources:

Books:

Wars In The Third World Since 1945 by Guy Arnold

The Defence Of White Power: South African Foreign Policy Under Pressure.

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