Wednesday, May 6, 2015

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The relative peace Burundi has enjoyed since the end of civil war may be under threat. Following the ceasefire that ended 12 years of brutal conflict in 2005, the country has experienced a degree of stability. But as the 2015 elections approach, many warn that President Pierre Nkurunziza and his ruling CNDD-FDD party are constricting political space through intimidation, violence and the repression of dissenting voices.

In doing so, however, the government has not had an easy ride. Instead, it has found itself face-to-face with resolute civil society and opposition groups who have refused to back down. How these contending dynamics play out could determine whether the 2015 elections, slated for the summer, represent a step towards greater democratic consolidation or a step back towards a politics of violence and fear.

Keeping a grip

In the 2010 elections, Burundi saw a sharp rise in political violence and intimidation, and, ultimately, many opposition parties boycotted the polls, leaving Nkurunziza to win the presidency with an official 92% of the vote. Many had been hoping that the 2015 would mark a change from these previous elections, but it seems a similar climate of repression and discord is brewing once again.

Early this year, for example, the government tried to push through a raft of constitutional amendments. Along with suspicions that these would include provisions allowing Nkurunziza to seek a third term, the suggested revisions proposed measures that would dilute the powers of the vice-presidency and reduce the number of votes needed to pass laws from the current two-third majority down to a mere 50%+1 majority. Critics, of whom there were many, claimed the amendments would threaten the country's fragile balance of power between Hutus and Tutsis and entrench the CNDD-FDD's power.

In March, opposition MPs managed to stop the constitutional changes going through parliament as the CNDD-FDD came just one vote short of approving the move. Not to be deterred, the interior minister shortly after announced that a referendum would be organised to push the changes through instead, but in the face of clear popular and political opposition, as well as some practical difficulties, this proposal was dropped, at least for the time being.

Civil society stands up

This seemed to be a clear victory for the opposition, but it nevertheless remains ambiguous as to whether Nkurunziza will attempt to run for a third term anyway. Under the constitution, presidents are limited to two terms, but supporters of the president have argued that his first term (2005-2010) should not count because he was indirectly elected. What does seem clear from the attempt to change the constitution, however, is that if Nkurunziza does try to run again, he will once again encounter vigorous opposition from a broad range of groups.

These deepening battle lines − between a government seemingly determined to hold onto power and a civil society refusing to be walked over − can also be seen in the ongoing case of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Mbonimpa, a veteran human rights activist and one of Burundi's most prominent public figures, was arrested on 15 May for allegedly threatening national security and using false documents. These charges related to claims he made on the radio that young Burundian men were receiving military training in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given the evidence in support of his allegations, many saw Mbonimpa's detention as unjust and as a way for the government to silence its critics. Burundian activists campaigned strongly for his release, and supporters turned up en masse outside his first court hearing in a show of solidarity. A number of international organisations also expressed concern over the case, with the European Parliament most recently adding its voice to calls for Mbonimpa's unconditional and immediate release.

The government, however, was not to be moved and responded by prohibiting demonstrators in support of the human rights defender, threatening radio stations that claimed to have evidence to corroborate his claims, and even banning a pro-Mbonimpa song.

The government recently released Mbonimpa provisionally on medical grounds, but the battle between the ruling party and supporters of the human rights activist look set to continue.

A rising climate of violence

Government's treatment of Mbonimpa fits into a broader pattern of what Burundian sociologist Nicodème Bugwabari has called a "climate of violence"; Amnesty International released a report in July documenting a "crackdown on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly and a sharp increase in politicized violence"; while the UN's top official in Burundi was expelled in April after a report claiming that the government had been arming its young supporters was leaked.

Perhaps predictably, Burundi's government party has tended to hit back at these criticisms, dismissing their claims as "partisan" and as "pure lies," but instances of political violence and repression continue to be reported.

Opposition parties, for example, have faced harassment and arbitrary arrests, particularly when holding public events. In March, for instance, numerous opposition figures were jailed for 'illegally' demonstrating, and the MSD party received a four-month suspension following a violent clash between police and its supporters. In late August meanwhile, a regional MSD leader announced that the party would no longer be attending meetings organised by the Gitega Province governor following harassment by CNDD-FDD activists.

In a more extreme accusation, members of Burundi's second largest party, UPRONA, have alleged that a police officer was sent to kill senior party member Charles Nditije. This followed allegations that the government had already tried to have Nditije removed from the party and replaced by the more compliant Concilie Nibigira in an attempt to fragment the party.

Worryingly, there is also rising evidence of the expansion of political parties’ aggressive youth wings. The ruling CNDD-FDD’s 'Imbonerakure', for example, has reportedly conducted a series of attacks against opponents and civilians with almost total impunity and has been described as acting like a ‘third arm’ of state security. Adding to this, opposition party youth wings have also become more prominent and interparty clashes have occurred.

Don’t stop the press

In the face of this, opposition parties have continued to hold demonstrations, including supporters’ jogs and larger events. Media organisations have also persisted in publishing and broadcasting critical material, from the banned pro-Mbonimpa song to articles unfavourable to the government, and have often openly criticised the much-feared Imbonerakure. And campaigners have organised public forums, published criticisms of the worsening violence, and demanded the investigation of extrajudicial killings.

Together, these groups have shown themselves to be a force to be reckoned with and have enjoyed minor successes. However, it is too early to say how these efforts will match up against a political system prepared to use violence and other such measures in a bid to closely control political space in the country in the run up to elections. Without guarantees for human rights, civil liberties, and free expression, the 2015 elections will look less credible, but the tenacity of civil society and media so far still gives hope for the democratic process.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:

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Caravan of Sound

There was an urban legend going around in the South African musical fraternity that Lloyd Ross, the founder of Shifty records, had managed to fund his alternative record label with the money he earned writing the theme music to the popular Afrikaans TV drama series 'Vyfster'.

It's a great story, but alas not entirely true, as he tells Koos Kombuis in an interview for the SA edition of Rolling Stone magazine:

I did indeed write 'Vyfster'. But no, I had to make a helluva lot more money than that to lose while I recorded and released Shifty records part-time. I worked in the film industry for that money. And later the Swedes gave enough money so that I could lose it for a couple of years full-time.

Regardless, the story of Shifty Records is fascinating and as Tune Me What joins other fans of the label in celebrating 'Shifty September' − marking 30 years since the label was founded − we end our trilogy of Shifty-themed shows joined in our 'virtual studio' by Lloyd Ross himself.

The conversation is punctuated with some of the key records from Shifty's history, from their first LP by Sankomota to their final releases with Van der Want/Letcher.

There's a huge variety for such a small label too; we hear the a cappella singing of the FOSATU Worker's Choir to the electronic experiment of the Kalahari Surfers.

Most of all, we hear from Lloyd Ross as he talks about Shifty's mission to challenge the old regime, their battle with censorship, their role in the new South Africa and why eventually they had to call it a day, leaving the rich musical legacy we're celebrating 30 years later.

Also mentioned in the programme is Michael Drewett’s documentary about Roger Lucey, which is well worth watching. Also, read Roger’s book!

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit or

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:

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Political unrest in the Sahara is usually associated with Mali, a country still in the grip of conflict where, for a time, Islamist rebels banned music in the towns they captured. Ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate, last year’s Sahara Soul concert headliner, described the situation as “ripping the heart out of Mali.” This year, the Barbican Centre’s celebration of Saharan music was expanded to include non-Malian groups, putting a spotlight on some less documented issues.

Take the plight of the Saharawi people, represented at London's Sahara Soul by singer and tabal drummer Aziza Brahim. Born in an Algerian refugee camp, Brahim learned about her homeland − the disputed territory of Western Sahara, currently occupied by Morocco − through word of mouth.

I feel like I’m missing my place in the world,” she says after her closing set. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family that always talked about it, which gave me a great sense of Western Sahara’s beauty and how much it has to offer.”

Her passion was at its most raw in her encore, the final voice of Sahara Soul. Brahim stood alone, calling out her urgent message and whacking her big tabal drum with a merciless slap that echoed around the theatre. The contrast between this and her regular set was huge. Backed by three Barcelonan guitarists and an Argentine drummer, each previous track had contained an exotic lushness that mixed flamenco with Malian-style desert blues. But ‘Aradana’, her sparse encore, was reflective of her childhood landscape.

“The extremity of the Algerian desert climate makes us entirely dependent on international help. There’s a lot of hardship, and that’s on top of the politics," she says. "At present our focus is trying to live with dignity.”

Previously part of Spanish Morocco, Western Sahara was invaded by both Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. Tens of thousands of Saharawis took refuge in the arid south-west desert region of Algeria. The contentious political situation has barely progressed for decades.

“The political situation we’re in now is a stalemate,” explains Brahim. “We’ve been waiting 40 years to have a referendum, something the Scottish can very much relate to. It’s the fairest way to resolve our conflict. It’s something that’s been re-affirmed by the United Nations, and it was clearly ruled by the International Court of Justice in 1975. The Saharawis have every right to override any claims regionally, particularly by Morocco, and to have self-determination.”

I ask Brahim whether there are parts of Saharawi life that are incompatible with life in the refugee camps?

“It’s hard for the Saharawi to be so far away from the sea, which essentially represents freedom," she says. "Our coast is also one of the richest fishing waters in the world. We miss the smell of the sea, and the chance to enjoy our own resources. We feel very much deprived of what is essentially ours. Even though I don’t physically know the land, I understand what’s being transmitting through my parents’ and grandparents’ generations."

Brahim explains that part of what was transmitted included the musical traditions on which she has built.

“Almost all my family are musicians. The tabal drum is the percussive base of Saharawi music. It’s an instrument that’s exclusively played by women, and it forms the backbone to all my music. In my family we play traditional music, but because of my life experience and exposure, I’ve introduced a lot of fusion. Initially my family found this strange, but at the same time my grandmother, who’s been my biggest influence artistically, was very proud that I was in a position to explore other genres. My grandmother is a poetess. Although she’s illiterate, she’s very wise. She took on the role of documenting the Moroccan takeover.”

On stage, the Spanish influence to Brahim’s music is a large part of its richness. This made her third album, Soutak, such a success, and reflects Brahim’s teenage and adult life spent in Cuba and Barcelona. I ask about the relationship between the Saharawi and Cuba.

“There’s an agreement of support and solidarity that’s long existed since our plight began," she explains. "This has been demonstrated by a regular wave of Cuban doctors to our refugee camps. On an educational level, the Cuban government has sponsored a lot of Saharawi children. I happened to be one of those children, so I got the chance to go to Cuba and gain a higher education. There I met people from all over the world. I learned to play music in Africa, but the Cuban influences in my sound are clear.

If Western Sahara got independence, would she go back?

“Even though I live in Spain, I feel like a refugee. Wherever I am, I’m a refugee. The only time that will change is when I have a chance to be in my own land − at the moment I have no sense of belonging.”

Brahim references the lyrics of one of her songs, ‘Lagi’, in summary:

“Living in a haimas [tent]
worn out by time
the haimas a witness of my sensibility and faith.
Look how many souls desire
to finally meet again the eyes that await them.”

It seems fitting to ask about Brahim’s affiliation with the Tuareg, who have been at the centre of Mali’s conflict over the past few years. Members of four legendary Tuareg groups − Tinariwen, Tamikrest, Terakaft and Tartit − played the first half of Sahara Soul, which made for a powerfully intimate set. While lacking a typical ‘desert rock’ punch, the Malian super-group transported the audience with their hypnotic, campfire-loving earthiness.

“We should be able to identify with the struggles of others,” says Brahim, “and this is certainly the case with the Tuareg. They have also been displaced. They have experienced oppression and are now fighting for their rights and freedom, and I can identify with what they represent both musically and socially. We both vow to struggle peacefully, so music is one of the only ways to get a platform.”

Aziza Brahim’s Soutak is released by Glitterbeat Records. More information on the Saharawi can be found at

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:

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Thundering Towards Thirty

In 1989, the future in South Africa seemed bleak and hopeless. The government had declared another State of Emergency which suspended certain meagre civil liberties and allowed them to detain anyone suspected of being an “enemy of the state” without trial almost indefinitely. Violent resistance and repression were at their peak.

Although largely insulated from the ultra-violent repression in South Africa’s townships, protests also intensified on our campus, leading President P.W. Botha and his hardline minister for education, FW de Klerk, to plan a clamp-down. We remember as students protesting against “the de Klerk proposals” which demanded that university authorities collude in repressing student dissent or risk losing state funding.

This was a year before Botha would be ousted and, startlingly, replaced with de Klerk, who would go on to free Nelson Mandela and embark on negotiations towards democracy. But in 1989, de Klerk was certainly giving few clues that he would be a reformist, ready to diverge from Botha’s disastrous and repressive policies, and all in all, there was little optimism amongst progressive South Africans.

The apartheid regime was of course propped up by the strength of the army. Year after year, a new intake of spotty conscripts fresh from school acted us the unconscious enablers of the regime. Going to the army, or doing “national service”, was a way of life for generations of white South African males. However, those lucky enough to have money and high school grades could get a university deferment − this is what we did, finding ourselves at Rhodes University in Grahamstown for the second half of the 1980s.

On most English-speaking campuses we could get politically involved and support campaigns for the ending of military conscription, taking the cue from the anti-Vietnam campaigning in the US a generation before. The soundtrack to the American youth revolution was now a part of popular culture in South Africa and the antiwar songs of the Woodstock generation − Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan and others − made much sense. All well and good, but we also needed an indigenous expression in our own vernacular by our own generation.

There was no hope any South African mainstream record company or radio stations would support anything so “seditious”. But then along came Shifty Records, the label we introduced in our last post. They were formed specifically to record these dissenting voices, and they soon released a series of compilation albums with anti-apartheid and anti-conscription themes by a range of emerging artists. One was called Forces Favourites, a cheeky reference to a state radio show aimed at conscripts doing their national service. The second was called A Naartjie in our Sosatie. (For non-South Africans a ‘naartjie’ is a sort of tangerine and a ‘sosatie’ is a kebab. South Africans are fond of mixing meat and fruit, so literally it would mean that you had a tangerine on your kebab skewer, but of course it is a pun which is read as “anarchy in our society”.)

Now, it was easy for the apartheid government to write off dissent on English university campuses because there had always been a feeling that English-speaking South Africans were, to use a popular crude term, ‘soutpiele’ (this essentially means they had 'salty genitalia' from straddling the UK and South Africa with bits dangling in the ocean − you get the picture…). But what they were not prepared for was the spread of youthful opposition to the bedrock Afrikaner community.

We do seem to be talking a lot about political history and not a great deal about music, but there is a very important connection: some might even claim a ‘causal’ connection.

To begin with, Shifty artist James Phillips, using the pseudonym Bernoldus Niemand (‘Bernard Nobody’), recorded the satirical song 'Hou My Vas Korporaal' ('Hold me tight, Corporal') which suggested that young men are wasting the best days of their lives playing war. This song became very influential amongst a group of emerging ‘progressive’ or ‘alternative’ Afrikaans artists.

Two particular fans were songwriters who had themselves contributed songs to a protest stage play called Piekniek by Dingaan (‘Picnic with Dingaan’, a provocative cultural reference too complicated to explain in this short article, but you can read about it here.) One of these, the journalist-turned-musician Ralph Rabie, changed his name to Johannes Kerkorrel (John Church Organ) while the other, André le Roux du Toit, first styled himself as André le Toit (an anagram of ‘toilet’ as he liked to point out) and later as Koos Kombuis (which can translate as ‘Loo Kitchen’, since the Afrikaans name ‘Koos’ is used to mean toilet like 'John' is in English…)

With the backing of Shifty Records, this duo put together a rock ‘n’ roll package tour called Voelvy (meaning literally “free as a bird” but colloquially “outlaws”.

Kerkorrel and his Gerformeerede Blues Band − made up of many Shifty family faces − together with ‘Bernoldus Niemand’ and Le Toit set out touring the town halls and university campuses of South Africa with songs of social commentary criticising the regime and mocking the Botha. Our guess is that it was the humorous songs did significant damage to the confidence of the regime: they knew how to deal with dissent, but they couldn’t cope with not being respected or taken seriously.

In the explosive opening song of their album Eet Kreef (‘Eat Lobster’), Kerkorrel and the GBB urged listeners to simply “turn off the TV” when the face of finger-wagging Botha came on. Interestingly, the Afrikaans for 'turn it off' is the song’s title ‘Sit Dit Af’, which is also Afrikaans for ‘amputate or chop off’, so it is possible they were craftily suggesting PW be deposed in the same way as Louis XVI of France.

The tour faced all sorts of harassment from the security police, from crude tactics such as puncturing their tyres, to strong-arming venues to cancel their shows. But they persevered and gained momentum and support, providing a lightning rod for the increasingly rebellious white youth who did not share the older generations vision of a racially segregated and militarised South Africa.

On a personal note, we both went to see the Voelvry concert in the Grahamstown Town Hall in 1989. We’d recently started our own student band playing covers of popular British and American rock classics, but in the middle of that show we looked at each other and decided then and there that we’d transform our band. We’d no longer play covers of imported music, but would write our own songs reflecting life in our own strange and twisted society. This led to many great experiences we might not otherwise have had − such as performing at Johannesburg’s legendary Jameson’s club − so quite apart from holding the line and giving us our generation the rock ‘n’ roll courage to stand up against the unjust regime and against the military machine that supported it, the Voelvry movement influenced our generation of musicians.

There is a wonderful documentary available on DVD directed by Shifty founder Lloyd Ross called “Voelvry − The Movie” and a very detailed book by Pat Hopkins for those who would like to find out more about the alternative Afrikaner rock ‘n’ rollers who soundtracked a sea-changing youth movement.

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit or

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:


Thundering Towards Thirty

An iconic record company is out of hibernation to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Under normal circumstances, it would seem odd that a long moribund label would have a Lazarus moment which was more than a sigh, let alone a joyous cry of celebration. Odd, but South Africa is an odd place, and Shifty Records was the asylum catering to some of the oddest of them all.

It is not an exaggeration to say that a highly disproportionate number of our favourite artists were on this tiny label with its studio in a caravan and which was run from ramshackle offices in the bohemian suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg.

It was the label for the street poets, the ‘alternative Afrikaners’ and the damaged songwriters chronicling their personal and political demons as the Apartheid system gargled its terrifying death rattle and the first cries of the infant democracy signalled a new life beyond fear and repression.

In the mid-1990s, the label stopped releasing new material and was effectively mothballed. More recently, the ease of digital distribution presented the opportunity for labels to re-release older catalogue and archive material, and the folks behind Shifty seized it with enthusiasm. Finally, albums by Simba Morri and The Kerels − long out of print on vinyl and never released on CD − could be made available once more. Then, the Shifty team of Lloyd Ross and Warwick Sony went even further, digging up tapes of unreleased material by Dread Warrior, Winston’s Jivemixup and others, including the full Free People's Concert recording from 1987.

On 24 September, a huge celebratory concert is being held in Johannesburg featuring many of the artists − most now household names, at least in South Africa − who got their start in the music business on the Shifty label. In this episode, we play some tracks by the artists who will be performing at the Shifty Heritage Concert. These include:

  • The Genuines
  • Jennifer Ferguson
  • Jonathan “Rat” Handley
  • Kalahari Surfers
  • The Kerels
  • Matthew van der Want
  • Rian Malan
  • Robin Auld
  • Simba Morri
  • Tananas
  • Tony Cox
  • Urban Creep
  • Van Der Want/Letcher
  • Vusi Mahlasela

Sadly, not the whole Shifty family will be at the concert. James Phillips died tragically in 1995 after a car accident at the Grahamstown Festival; a year later, another horrific car accident claimed the life of several members of Sankomota; while guitarist Frank Mooki Leepa died in 2003; and Johannes Kerkorrel took his own live in 2002.

Shifty is also fundraising for a range of related ventures, including the release of the legendary “lost” James Phillips album. But we'll let Lloyd Ross explain:

If you can’t be at the concert on the 24th, why not treat yourself to some of the goodies − including digital compilations − at the Shifty Thunderfund page, or enjoy this episode of Tune Me What, which introduces you to all the featured artists.

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit or

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:

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Freetown, Sierra Leone:

It's midnight and I am driving around the East End of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, with a young taxi driver known as Human Right. For the past year, I have regularly been accompanying Human Right on journeys picking up passengers as part of my doctoral research in anthropology. The East End is usually buzzing at night, every junction packed with people drinking, eating street food, and hanging out. But today there are only a handful of passengers. "The streets are dry," Human Right tells me.

The slowing down of the rainy season normally leads to there being more people on the streets, which means more business for many, including drivers, but in the past month, Sierra Leone’s government has issued numerous restrictions to tackle the country’s Ebola outbreak. Motorbike taxis are running on a limited basis during daylight hours. Places of assembly, such as bars, cinemas and schools, are closed countrywide. Travel in and out of the outbreak epicentres in the east of the country is severely restricted. Many people do not have places to go, or money to spend.

Human Right comments that the elite in the country are not suffering from the Ebola epidemic the way that ordinary people are. And he is far from alone in feeling that some are even benefiting personally from the donations being made by the international community and local big businesses. These elites also have a lower risk of infection than those who work on the streets.

We approach a police checkpoint as we head downtown. They pull us over and point out various problems with the car, threatening to take us to the police station. As expected, Human Right gives them a portion of his earnings and we continue. With fewer drivers on the streets, the traffic police, who gain an income through bribes and fines, are resorting to harsher penalties. Human Right is confident that the crisis will end soon; the dry weather will kill the virus, which thrives, he believes, in wet conditions.

But some are less confident. Abdul Johnson is a police officer, a neighbour of mine and a drinking buddy. A few months ago, when the boundaries between ‘Ebola’ as rumour, conspiracy and reality were hard to separate for myself and many around me, Abdul was sceptical. He suggested that Ebola was fabricated by the government to siphon international aid money, or that it is part of a terrorist plot to drain the country’s resources. Now, like many others, he is critical of the government for not acting more quickly when the outbreak started in neighbouring Guinea, allowing the virus to fester and spread. These suspicions of the government are not uncommon or necessarily unfounded. They reflect people’s genuine experiences of corruption and inequality.

Additionally, it is easy for people here to feel a sense of disconnect between their own experiences and the international media reports that place them in the heart of a global crisis. People that I speak to insist that they do not know anyone who has Ebola; the epicentres of the outbreak are in the east of the country, several hours drive from Freetown. They point out that Sierra Leoneans suffer all the time in multiple ways, but rarely get the international attention and relief that is being directed at Ebola.

Abdul compares this experience of disconnect to that which residents of Freetown experienced during the country’s devastating civil war from 1991-2002. For most of those years. the war, which started when rebels crossed the Liberian border, did not ‘reach’ Freetown. Most of the fighting took place in the provinces − the same regions that are currently most affected. Thousands fled to the capital, but for long periods it was hard to travel, because, like now, roads were often heavily policed or blocked. But life continued in Freetown, albeit with an even greater sense of uncertainty than normal, until the city was invaded in January 1999 with disastrous consequences.

A similar sense of ambiguity about the future is strongly felt in Freetown today. It is not just school and work that are put on hold or limited, but key life events. Abdul is waiting until the restrictions on gatherings are lifted − and also until more money becomes available − to perform the naming ceremony for his newborn son. Most people I know are waiting for normality and greater clarity, rather than disaster.

One such person is Hawa Bangura, who runs a small grocery shop outside her mother’s house in my neighbourhood of Congo Town. She set up the shop in partnership with her boyfriend, Arthur, who works as a receptionist at a guesthouse and restaurant frequented by expats. Hawa is halfway through a four-year university course in Financial Services, but she doesn't know if term will start as usual next month.

Arthur meanwhile has been laid off until further notice; most potential customers have left the country and most airlines have stopped flying to Sierra Leone. This puts more pressure on Hawa, as Arthur, along with other family members, is now relying solely on the shop. At the same time, the prices of items the shop stocks have risen. Many goods sold in Sierra Leone are imported through Guinea, but with the border currently closed, they are either smuggled at great cost, or sourced elsewhere. Some produce from Sierra Leone, such as coal and palm oil, is also hard to purchase now that the luma, the weekly produce markets, have been banned.

The situation is changing every day, but the vast majority of Freetown residents have yet to witness at firsthand a case of Ebola. Yet everything seems to be affected by the disease. As the dominant topic of conversation, ‘Ebola’ can simultaneously act as a vehicle for humour and absurdity, as when friends almost shake hands but then comically decide against it; a source of anger and sadness; and a medium for criticism and suspicion. Knowing what to believe and who to trust is not easy, and many do not consider themselves to be at risk of catching the virus itself. But the harsh economic realities of the crisis are inescapable. 

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During the early hours of 30 August, soldiers in Lesotho surrounded the country’s police headquarters and Prime Minister’s residence, cutting power in the capital Maseru and shutting down radio stations for several hours.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and the newly-appointed commander of the armed forces, Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao, who both reportedly escaped assassination attempts, fled to neighboring South Africa, which surrounds the small landlocked country of two million people. Thabane, and a South African Foreign Ministry spokesman, both declared that the military actions bore "the hallmarks of a coup d’état." Other observers were a bit more cautious, such as the US which issued a statement urging peaceful dialogue.

While the precise details surrounding the events are still hazy, there are some important lessons to be drawn. Most importantly, making sense of Lesotho’s conflict, however fluid at the moment, will help provide a path out of the current crisis. Although political analysts, and even avid Africa watchers, routinely ignore Lesotho, deeming it an inconsequential backwater, its political trajectory will be instrumental in shaping the future of not only South Africa, the region’s superpower, but also that of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the 15-state regional bloc of which Lesotho and South Africa are members.

Roots of the unrest

The root cause of the outbreak of violence in Lesotho was the result of a breakdown of the coalition government, which has occupied power since 2012. Serious political fissures began to open in June of this year when Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), announced an agreement with the Democratic Congress (DC) – the largest party in parliament and official opposition – to pass a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Thabane, leader of the All Basotho Convention (ABC). Sensing that his political fate was hanging in the balance, Thabane suspended parliament, precluding his political foes from unseating him through democratic processes. To complicate matters more, Thabane had recently spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign, ensnaring Metsing in what would have likely been an embarrassing and drawn-out court case, slated to begin this month.

The escalation of hostilities was also the result of entrenched alliances between members of Lesotho’s governing coalition and certain branches of the security forces, namely the army and police. The decision by Thabane to replace the head of the army, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, with his ally Mahao, was seen as an underhand and self-serving move by those outside Thabane’s camp.

Shortly after the violence had subsided, Lesotho’s main political actors convened in Pretoria, South Africa, for a meeting that included the host country’s president and regional powerbroker, Jacob Zuma. In a bid to restore a semblance of normalcy, Prime Minister Thabane agreed to reopen Parliament on 19 September.

Much at stake

The ongoing turmoil matters deeply to ordinary Basotho, many of who are concerned about access to basic services like electricity and the human security that comes with the rule of law and a functioning democracy. Given the precarious economic fortunes experienced by many across the country, the average person can ill-afford disruptions to their schooling, jobs, and livelihoods. While gross national income, according to the World Bank, has steadily risen for over a decade, the country has yet to make that growth accessible to all Basotho, the majority of whom still live below the national poverty line.

Nevertheless, the country remains one of only a handful of countries in SADC to be rated “free” by human rights watchdog Freedom House, and one of only ten African countries overall to achieve that designation. Lesotho has also improved in areas of vital social significance that could portend a more prosperous future. According to the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, for example, Lesotho outpaces many of its African counterparts in two main categories: Safety and the Rule of Law, as well as Participation and Human Rights. Towards that end, Lesotho has been considered, until very recently, a relative success story on a continent of which headlines are unfortunately – and often unfairly – dominated by coups, corruption, and general human suffering.

Lesotho is also one of only three countries (four, if you count Malawi) in the SADC region to experience a transition of political party in the executive by means of elections, the others being Zambia and Mauritius. The Basotho people regained democratic rule in the early 1990s, by largely peaceful means, and there was hope that the new coalition government represented a maturing democracy.

The longer Lesotho’s political uncertainty drags on, however, the greater the likelihood of disastrous disruptions to the lives of ordinary Basotho, and for the country as a whole. Much of Lesotho’s economy depends on the manufacturing sector, which constitutes upwards of 30% of its gross domestic product (GDP). What's more, nearly 100% of Lesotho’s exports fall under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade preference programme that gives duty-free treatment to goods going to the US. These jobs could easily disappear if Lesotho’s government cannot ensure safety, or if the instability caused its borders to close. Revoking a country’s AGOA status is not unprecedented, happening previously during unrest in the Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea, Madagascar, and most recently in nearby Swaziland.

Lesotho’s instability could also have wider resonance on resource conflicts beyond its borders. Gauteng Province, the administrative, industrial, and mining heartland of South Africa – and arguably the SADC region – relies heavily on access to Lesotho’s water supply. South Africa’s leaders are well aware that when they bathe, cook, and enjoy a swim, they do so with water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a massive 30-year multi-billion dollar cooperative venture between Lesotho and South Africa. The latter’s interest in Lesotho’s domestic affairs stems in part from its water, but there is a longer history of intervention, demonstrated by repeated attempts over the years to shape the leaders in power to conform to South African interests.

Leabua Jonathan, elected Lesotho’s Prime Minister at independence in 1965, for instance, clung to power for decades after his 1970 electoral defeat because B.J. Vorster’s apartheid regime funded his military. By 1982, however, after Jonathan openly criticised his neighbor, Vorster’s military raided Maseru, killing many African National Congress (ANC) refugees in addition to scores of innocent Basotho civilians. Growing increasingly disillusioned with Jonathan, the South African government then sealed Lesotho’s borders in 1986, barring the delivery of food, petrol, and other necessities, prompting Lesotho’s military to oust Jonathan by force. These military leaders, largely dependent on South Africa’s backing, then quickly signed the long-discussed water project treaty. South Africa again invaded Lesotho in 1998 at the head of a SADC intervention force after disputed elections, leveling swaths of Maseru’s commercial district. The subsequent economic ruin remains visible to this day.

Beyond South Africa, there is also a need to foster greater stability and advance core democratic principles in the region. In this regard, Lesotho has an important, and perhaps outsized role to play. SADC has experienced significant setbacks with general declines in political rights and civil liberties in many of its member countries over the past several years. By contrast, Lesotho’s coalition government, elected in 2012, marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the country, ushering in the continent’s only coalition government under a Westminster system as a result of elections. Just as important, the elections were declared “free and fair” by all international observers, including the African Union and SADC— no small feat for a region historically replete with fraudulent elections.

Compromise is key

The 2012 elections that brought together Lesotho’s governing coalition inspired feelings of genuine hope and optimism. There was a sense that an important corner had been turned − that the self-interest of political leaders could take a backseat to compromise and pragmatism. While these high hopes have been somewhat dashed over the past week, a new survey suggests that faith in democracy remains strong, with a majority of Basotho saying elections are the best means for selecting leaders. In the same survey, the fact that six out of ten voters reported being dissatisfied with “the way democracy works” should be read as an indictment of the political leaders and current party structures rather than as an indictment of electoral democracy itself.

Lesotho’s politicians have shown themselves at the best of times to be capable of governing for the common good. An example of this was the Universal Old Age Pension Scheme of 2004, which was one of the first attempts by a low-income country to effectively care for its aging population through direct payments. The success of this programme in providing basic social services is impressive, but from a political standpoint, the pensions have also helped build trust between citizens and the government.

This final point is noteworthy as it offers a way forward. With a degree of outside pressure – and it will have to be light given Lesotho’s past – a sustainable compromise is possible. Having SADC members with reasonably good records of democratisation, such as Botswana and Mauritius, to help negotiate a grand bargain is a good place to start. A truly sustainable compromise must also incorporate dialogue with key domestic actors, not only politicians and leaders of the security forces, but civil society too, including religious leaders and NGOs.

The key to unlocking Lesotho’s immediate and long-term stability will be for its leaders to embrace a strategy of compromise and to govern with an eye towards the common good rather than one premised on political posturing and brazen self-interest. The latter approach has clearly led Lesotho astray, embroiling the country, and now SADC, in renewed turmoil.

It is not too late to get the country back on track.

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