Resentment builds in Lesotho highlands

BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents
August 7, 2007

BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents visited Lesotho, one of the world’s poorest countries, where 30,000 people have been relocated because of an ambitious water project.

The dam at Katse (right) is Africa’s largest. Credit: BBC.

“Life was much easier before. We were not living as hard as we live here.”

For the past six years Anna Moepi and her sister have been scratching a living in a village a few kilometres from the capital of Lesotho, Maseru.

The farm where they were brought up, in the highlands, is now under water.

As her sister scrubs pans, Anna describes the life her family had to leave behind:

“Life was easy. We were very communal. We would share food. There was a huge amount of land. I used to plough maize, as well as marijuana. I made a lot of money selling marijuana, mostly to South Africans.”

Desperate times

Anna Moepi does have a new house but she has lost her land and her livelihood. She now sells beer illegally to get a few extra pennies.
Anna Moepi (right) feels that promises have been broken. Credit: BBC.

“From the beginning it was not great. We never got the money we were promised and when we got here there were no schools; no clinics; no cemeteries; and we still have not been received officially by the local people.”

Thirty thousand people have been moved because of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, one of Africa’s largest engineering schemes.

The project is an ambitious series of dams and tunnels, designed to supply water to South Africa’s industrial heartland around Johannesburg, and electricity to Lesotho.

This landlocked country is one of the world’s poorest and water is most valuable commodity.

So far, two dams have been completed: the Katse, which is Africa’s largest, and the Mohale, where Anna and her family used to live.

Further stages of the project are on hold at the moment as both governments – and their financial backers – decide if they are needed just yet.

Can of worms

In the meantime, the project is embroiled in a huge corruption scandal.

Masupha Sole, the former chief executive of the project’s implementing body, the Lesotho Highlands Water Authority, was found guilty of taking bribes and began a 15-year jail sentence last year.

The investigation into his finances and expensive lifestyle opened a can of worms, leading investigators to shine the corruption light onto 12 multinational engineering and consulting companies, as well as several intermediaries.

So far two companies have been found guilty of paying bribes. The appeal of one – a Canada-based company, Acres International – was set to be heard in early August. More cases are set to follow, including four against British companies.

But Lesotho’s action against international corruption holds little weight on the steep, bare mountain sides above the Katse dam and reservoir. Here, anger against the government is easy to find.


Huddled against the freezing temperatures in a thick blanket, Mapitsi Suhole says she can no longer feed her family properly:

“They made me believe I would have a better life but actually I am starving.”
Mapitsi Suhole (right) is struggling to feed her family. Credit: BBC.

Mapitsi also had a new house built for her when she was moved from the valley floor and her farm was flooded. She told the programme:

“It is a beautiful house but it is too cold up here. I am going to be paralysed from the cold.”

Despite the reservoir at her doorstep, she talks of water shortages and of the children who have drowned. “There is nothing that impresses me about the dam. It is because of this water that I am suffering.”

“People are wishing they could be affected (by the project),” the Minister of Natural Resources, the Honourable Monyame Moleleki told Crossing Continents.

And he continued: “This is one of the best projects anywhere in the world.”

When challenged that his people are claiming to be starving because of it, his response is equally uncompromising: “That’s rubbish. No-one has gone hungry for a single meal . . .

“If my people are telling you that, they are liars.”

He points to the roads, the electricity, the telecommunications that have been brought by the project to the previously inaccessible interior of the country; and to the $20m a year royalty payments Lesotho now gets from South Africa, and will carry on getting for the next 50 years.

The minister admits there have been delays in paying compensation of up to six months or a year, but claims all compensation has now been paid.

That is not the message you get from the likes of Mapitsi Suhole or Anna Moepi, and others like them who now live on government handouts.

Anna complains that she may have a new house with water and electricity, but she cannot afford the bills. She says she has not received any money since last October.

“There is nothing good about it. If it was up to me I would not dare build the dam in the first place, because it takes away the land, and the land is what feeds the people.”

BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 7 August, and will be repeated on Monday, 10 August, 2003, at 2030 BST.

Categories: Africa, Lesotho, Odious Debts

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