E.g., 06/19/2024
E.g., 06/19/2024
Lesotho: From Labor Reserve to Depopulating Periphery?

Lesotho: From Labor Reserve to Depopulating Periphery?

Lesotho is an enclave entirely surrounded by South Africa, with a population that has been estimated variously at anywhere from 1.9 million by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2011 to 2.2 million by South African sources in 2009. Ethnically, the people of Lesotho are almost wholly Basotho, but a key to understanding migration in and out of Lesotho is that, while exact numbers are difficult to gauge, more ethnic Basotho live in South Africa than in Lesotho.

Further, a long history of close interaction exists between the two countries. One notable survey of this nature, taken in Lesotho in 2003, found that 37 percent of the people interviewed reported a family member working in South Africa, 26 percent reported a family member permanently settled there, 21 percent had sought medical care there, and 18 percent acknowledged possessing South African identification documents.

Lesotho once had the distinction of having a higher proportion of its labor force temporarily employed outside its borders than any other country. For most of the 20th century, as much as half the adult male population worked on a temporary basis in South Africa, predominantly in the gold mines but also in most other sectors of the South African economy. Until the tightening of border controls mid-century, many Basotho also migrated permanently, albeit technically illegally, to South Africa. With the heightened opposition to apartheid from the late 1950s and the coming of majority rule in South Africa in 1994, substantial changes occurred regarding how migration is experienced in Lesotho.

Six main changes to Lesotho's migration experience transpired over the last 60 years or so. First, as opposition to apartheid grew, increasing numbers of political refugees from South Africa entered Lesotho. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, these refugees formed a distinct exile community, particularly in the capital city of Maseru. After South African armed attacks on exile housing, the numbers of political refugees dwindled as they moved to safer locales further north or outside of Africa altogether. After 1994, almost all exiles had left Lesotho as South Africa's apartheid system crumbled.

Second, the number of workers from Lesotho in the mines of South Africa increased substantially as real wages rose in the 1970s and 1980s and Lesotho became a preferred source of labor. Their numbers have since declined — dramatically since the late 1990s onward — initially as a result of mechanization and relative stagnation in gold mining, and later partly because of a preference for South African labor.

Third, there has been a constant and debilitating brain drain from Lesotho to South Africa and, to some extent, to Botswana and other African countries a bit earlier. This emigration includes skilled workers, especially those in professional and technical fields.

Fourth, some former migrant workers became legal permanent residents of South Africa in the late 1990s, following changes in South African law.

Fifth, with continued relative economic stagnation and political upheavals in Lesotho and the drying up of migration opportunities for the unskilled, growing numbers of clandestine migrants have attempted to find work in South Africa, especially in the less-regulated parts of its economy such as farming and domestic service. A high, if unknowable, proportion of these migrants are believed to be female.

Lastly, a new group of economic inward migrants to Lesotho has emerged: ethnic Chinese from East Asia, who now constitute the largest group of foreign residents ever to live in the country.

Problems with Numbers

Lesotho was one of the largest sources of Black labor in South African mining for well over a century. In the heyday of South African reliance on Basotho labor in the gold mines, to work in the mines for at least a year or two was a normal part of becoming an adult for men from Lesotho. From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, most able-bodied men could obtain a contract as a novice to work in the mines. However, at that time, mine wages for Blacks were low, no higher in real terms in 1969 than before World War I, and not sufficient to maintain a family in Lesotho. Most migrants therefore worked several contracts to save enough money to pay a bride price, and then "retired" to farming in Lesotho.

Black miners were, until the 1990s, always regarded by both employers and the state in South Africa as temporary, oscillating migrants. This notion, together with the restrictions on entry into South Africa from Lesotho (which were essentially nonexistent until mid-century, but then became progressively tighter) means that all data on migration from Lesotho to South Africa are highly suspect.

Ordinarily, countries will try to distinguish between two kinds of migrants — temporary and permanent. But the institutional arrangements in Southern Africa result in some complications: Many migrants have strong motivations to hide their origin and/or intent, and many more may be regarded, because of the institutional arrangements, as being in one category when their actual intent and behaviors are consistent with the other.

Part of the problem is that there are more ethnic Basotho who are South African citizens than there are Lesotho citizens, and there is a long history of movement of persons entering and exiting the country. Thus, ambiguity about legal residence is not unusual. The 2003 survey response cited — 18 percent of interviewees in Lesotho acknowledged having South African identification documents — emphasizes how widespread ambiguity about legalities is.

Two examples may help to make this point. Until recently, all mineworkers were legally temporary migrants. But after the mid 1980s, when recruitment of new novices to the mines essentially ceased and total mine employment started falling, miners from Lesotho had to behave as permanent migrants, whether they intended to return to Lesotho eventually or not. The reason was that, following a period of home leave at the end of a contract, if they did not return to their mine on or before their recall date, they would lose their job permanently. Further, those who had lived in South Africa for five years were permitted to vote in the 1994 election, and since then those with long residence have been permitted to have their families join them and seek permanent residence in South Africa.

Around the same time, noticeable numbers of professional Basotho obtained employment in South Africa after 1994, including in government service. The latter normally had to either claim South African citizenship or have some other basis for legal residence (such as a spouse with legal residence). Many of these professionals and other high-skilled Basotho migrants privately express every intention of returning to Lesotho eventually, but to retain their employment in South Africa they have to categorize themselves as permanent migrants.

Such problems are present in measuring migrant movements in all cases in which there are clandestine flows. However, in the southern African context, there are added problems of genuine ambiguity of status and frequent reasons to doubt that official classification as temporary or permanent corresponds to the individual's true intent. Published estimates of the numbers of Lesotho-origin Basotho in South Africa range from 100,000 to around half a million in a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, to the World Bank estimate of the stock of emigrants in 2010 at 427,500. At the same time, Basotho refers to ethnic Sotho, as opposed to Lesotho citizens. At the minimum, about 1.5 million (though probably closer to 2 million) Lesotho citizens are Basotho (speak Sesotho as their native tongue), whereas in the 2001 South Africa census about 4 million Basotho (citizens with Sesotho as home language) resided in South Africa.

Thus — although many sources give precise numbers for different categories of migrants in South Africa and Lesotho — except for instances in which the number is given for something with a clear definition (e.g., numbers of mineworkers officially recruited), all such migrant estimates should be treated with considerable caution.

Migrant Labor and South African Mining

South African sources suggest that total employment in mining peaked in 1987 at about 673,000. The total number of foreign-born African mineworkers had probably peaked 14 years earlier at about 340,000 (65.2 percent of the then total) in 1973. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, Lesotho was a preferred source of mineworkers, and the number of miners from Lesotho in South Africa (using Lesotho sources) probably peaked in 1990 at over 127,000 — then well over half of the total foreign-born mine labor force of about 224,000. The number of miners at that time more than outnumbered the number of persons with formal wage jobs in Lesotho, a situation that persisted until the late 1990s.

Since 1990, the numbers of miners overall, and from Lesotho in particular, have fallen fairly rapidly. Total employment in South African mining bottomed out in 2001 at 406,000, before recovering a little. Now that the mines prefer South African workers, who can more easily be "stabilized," migrants from Lesotho have been retrenched, so that by late 2010 the number of mineworkers from Lesotho was estimated to be fewer than 43,000.

The consequences for Lesotho of the end of new legal migration to work in South African mines and the retrenchment of migrants have been devastating. They have been exacerbated by population growth, political instability, drought, continuing soil erosion, and the peculiarities of the country's limited economic development.

Lesotho, with a 23 percent HIV/AIDS prevalence rate believed to be among the highest in the world, has the distinction of being the only country in southern Africa in which more men than women are HIV positive. This is a result of the relative affluence of former miners, when they had jobs and lived in single-sex hostels at the mines. Meanwhile, agricultural output has fallen by about 40 percent in the last 20 years, and few returned migrants have access to good agricultural land.

In recent years, Lesotho has qualified under the U.S. African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), under which African countries that meet certain criteria qualify for preferential access to the U.S. market for certain goods, notably apparel. This has helped spur a rapid expansion of the textile and garment industry, which was originally established to evade sanctions against South African exports during the apartheid era. The expansion created tens of thousands of jobs, but almost exclusively for women; the garment factories do not employ men as operatives.

Rural poverty in Lesotho has reemerged with a vengeance, after a brief period of prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s following the rapid increase in the real wages of African mineworkers in South Africa. Poverty is now accompanied by recurrent hunger, as increasing proportions of rural residents are no longer able to grow food. Remittances from migrants, almost entirely through informal channels, continue to be a vital source of income in Lesotho. The World Bank estimates that remittances amounted to 29 percent of the country's gross domestic product in 2010 — the second-highest proportion for any country in the world.

Brain Drain

There is a long history of educated Black Africans moving back and forth between Lesotho and South Africa. During the apartheid era, many Black (and some White) South Africans chose employment in Lesotho over discrimination in South Africa, and made important contributions to health care, education, government, and the professional sector in Lesotho. In the opposite direction, a number of individuals born in Lesotho rose to prominence in South Africa, perhaps the best known being Potlako Leballo, who became leader of the Pan African Congress of South Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s, expatriates from the rest of Anglophone Africa joined the South African exiles in Lesotho. But by the late 1970s, there were also movements from Lesotho to South Africa, initially to the Bantustans (independent all-Black enclaves set up under apartheid), and then to public and private employers throughout the South African economy in the 1990s.

There are no reliable estimates of the numbers of persons involved, but as a proportion of the stock of educated workers in Lesotho, and especially of the more talented ones, the movement is very significant. The World Bank estimates that one-third of Lesotho-born physicians have emigrated. Partly as a result of this, the Lesotho government has had to turn to foreign-born physicians to fill health care needs.

This brain drain is, of course, driven by the substantially higher remuneration, stronger prospects for advancement, and far better social and infrastructural environment available in South Africa. National income per person in South Africa is almost four times higher than in Lesotho, even by purchasing power parity estimates, and the actual monetary differential is larger. As early as the 1970s, when mine wages started their upward movement, there were widespread stories of male teachers leaving schools in Lesotho to take jobs in South African mines (usually on the surface), and numerous cases of university academics and government professionals leaving Lesotho for equivalent posts at two to three times the salary or more in Bantustans. Since around 1994, the floodgates have opened, and many of Lesotho's skilled workers have found employment, one way or another, in South Africa.

A large salary differential between Lesotho and South Africa remains today, resulting in Lesotho's continuing shortages of doctors, nurses, accountants, engineers, many kinds of skilled manual workers, and other professionals. Basotho with strong qualifications continue to seek better opportunities across the border or, in the case of medical personnel, further afield. In fact, Basotho nurses are known to have been recruited to work in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Unauthorized Immigrants

Until the 1950s, Black Africans from Lesotho (then Basutoland) were treated within South Africa just like South African Blacks. When it became clear that Basutoland and the two other former High Commission Territories would not be incorporated into South Africa, border controls were imposed and progressively tightened.

However, the border is of the kind that can never be sealed. In the Western lowlands, the border is a river that for much of the year can be walked across, while much of the rest of it is in mountainous territory that prohibits practical and effective fencing. So when crossing the border evading controls has always been possible.

Furthermore, crossing at official control points is often feasible without documents permitting residence or employment — Basotho have always visited South Africa to shop, seek medical treatment, or make social visits, and South Africans enter Lesotho for similar reasons. In fact, a 2011 research report by the University of the Orange Free State estimated that border crossings between Lesotho and the Free State (a South African province) have increased tenfold over the past 20 years.

Once in South Africa, a person from Lesotho can seek employment or self-employment in the large informal sector with relatively little fear of detection, and not much risk of deportation if detected. And even if deported, return to South Africa is easy.

As a result, the long history of unrecorded migration for economic and social reasons to South Africa from Lesotho continues, and there is no real way to know the scope of illegal immigration. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in both the Free State and Gauteng, which have large ethnic Sotho populations of South African citizens, migrants from Lesotho are found throughout the economy and include some prominent and successful entrepreneurs, in addition to many others in marginal occupations such as domestic service, hawking, and various illegal activities.

Although both governments have rejected political integration, each understands the complexities of these movements of people. An agreement signed in 2007 eased cross-border border movement, meant to reduce the long queues visible at border posts. Given the large income differentials between the two countries, and Lesotho's substantial disadvantages as a location for economic activity within Southern Africa, it is a safe prediction that over the coming decades a substantial portion of Lesotho's population will move to South Africa, at least for much of their working lives.

The Chinese in Lesotho

Since the late 19th century, a small number of families of South Asian descent in Lesotho as a result of migration from the South African province of Natal. Other nonindigenous groups have been confined to small numbers of families of European ancestry who originally came as missionaries, traders, or colonial officials, and who chose to stay. Additionally, a few Chinese entered Lesotho soon after independence in 1966, when Lesotho recognized the government of Taiwan rather than that of Beijing. Around that time few private investments were made, and there was some aid from the Taiwanese government.

However, the last 15 years have seen a substantial change. Although Lesotho now recognizes Beijing, the boom in textile and apparel manufacturing in Lesotho has been financed almost wholly by investors from Taiwan, who have brought in skilled workers and managers from the mainland. The Nien Hsing Denim Mill, for example, is a large factory reported to have had around 500 Chinese staff in addition to its 3,000 Basotho employees at its peak.

In the past decade, Chinese migrants have also moved into retail trade throughout the country, so that even in remote rural districts many shops are run by Chinese. Chinese migrants have also established themselves in construction, with the result that Chinese firms are winning contracts for a majority of new buildings.

The Chinese Embassy now estimates that there are close to 5,000 Chinese nationals in Lesotho, out of the fewer than 7,000 total foreign-born residents estimated by the World Bank.


Three recent developments illustrate both the complexity of the migration relationship between Lesotho and South Africa, and the importance of its historical aspects.

In recent years, there has been increasing concern in South Africa about clandestine crossings by migrants and cross-border crime, particularly with respect to livestock theft, but also concerning vehicles and drugs. To combat such crime, the South African Defense Force has been deployed to the border with Lesotho to reinforce the South African Police.

Second, a South African lawyer working with the U.S. firm Motley Rice has signed up some 7,000 former miners, many of them from Lesotho, for a class-action suit against the mining companies for compensation for silicosis developed as a result of mine work. If this suit succeeds, the settlement could have a substantial impact on the standard of living for many households in poor, rural areas in Lesotho.

Third, continued high unemployment in South Africa is resulting in more popular and political attention to the issue of migrants: An opinion piece by the editor of the English-language Sowetan newspaper (South Africa) argues they "are winning the job battle" by accepting lower wages than unemployed South Africans will accept.

Because Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa, cross-border movements are inevitable. It has always been and will always be true that what happens in Lesotho will be heavily influenced by what happens in South Africa, and perhaps, to some extent, the other way around. The volume and nature of migration between the two countries is thus inextricably linked to each nation's policy, economic, and social realities.


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