WSF (1998): “Lesotho: Was it revolution?”
From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 4, number 2, fourth quarter 1998. Complete PDF is here
From our correspondent on the spot
The tiny mountain state has been in the news over the past weeks following the September 22 military invasion by South African and Botswanan troops and the subsequent looting spree, which saw the centre of Maseru, reduced to a smoking ruin. The invasion took place after mass protests against a rigged election spilled over into the virtual collapse of the government and a split in the army.
The invasion was widely named a “peace mission” by the bosses’ media. But SA Defence Minister Joe Modise virtually admitted at the funeral of one of the eight working class South African soldiers killed in the fighting that the operation was meant to be the first field test of the new integrated SANDF “as a fighting force”.
The claim by the Southern African Development Community (coalition of bosses governments) that the intention was to “restore democracy” (a vague term that can be used to justify almost anything) is shown up as a lie by the fact that the SA military was preparing for the invasion a full six months before the electoral crisis even began in May.
Newspapers owned by the capitalist elite – and even the SA Communist Party (SACP) – have backed the lie, claiming that “anarchy” had broken out in Lesotho. Had law and order collapsed? Had government been replaced by direct democracy and worker control?
THE PEOPLE ARMED?
Was the mutiny by rebel soldiers in the Lesotho Defence Force in the week before the invasion actually a class war in defence of democracy?
Well, the mutiny definitely had a class character. Privates and non-commissioned officers ousted the fat-cat generals, including Lt-Genl Mokhule Mosakeng, at gunpoint, first jailing them, then forcing them to flee into exile in South Africa. This was a brilliant example of direct action by the exploited. The soldiers were upset that democracy in Lesotho had been undermined by the top brass who had been bought off by the politicians, with bribes like the “gift” of farms in the Free State. In other words, poorly paid working class soldiers (27 of whom were killed by SANDF troops in the invasion) revolted against their corrupt, undemocratic bosses. The argument that the mutineers intended to seize power for a military government (thus justifying the invasion) is not true. The intention of the mutineers seems to have been to force a serious review of democratic process in Lesotho, not to stage a coup.
The unexpectedly strong resistance to the invasion showed how passionately they believed their cause was right. Unfortunately, this class war was severely crippled by the opposition parties who used the mutiny (which carries the death penalty) to prop up their own dubious claims to take power in Lesotho i.e. to be the “legitimate” exploiters of the Basotho people.
Was there chaos or violence when there was no government? In other words, was the collapse of the government a bad thing?
No. Even the petit-bourgeois store owners who lost their businesses in the looting were convinced that while the government in Lesotho had in fact been paralysed since the disputed May election, the Basotho people ran the territory themselves, without any need for a parasitic elite telling them what to do. This was not libertarian socialist economics at work, however, because capitalism remained unchallenged, but the anti-political, self-organising social aspect of socialism from below was in full swing.
The fact is that for six months, there was no effective governance in Lesotho – yet there was very little chaos or disruption. The violent backlash in the last days of September was in direct response to the foreign military operation to suppress Basotho civil initiative and protect South African economic interests in Lesotho.
Was there a class war or grassroots political reason for the rioting and looting?
Well, the rioting seems to have begun because the SANDF invaded the palace grounds, a place viewed as a sanctuary by many Basotho. The rioting was heavily influenced by this cultural mistake by the SANDF, and by political opportunists who fanned the flames. But there was a lot of genuine street opposition to foreign military powers intervening in the workings of Lesotho society, no matter how troubled. The looting was largely “opportunistic”, not class- conscious: help yourself to a new TV while you can. But in a country where even the aid organisations admit the poor benefit hardly at all from the millions pouring into state coffers, it is hardly surprising that the poor will seize what capitalism denies them.
The world’s workers build the entire global economy and all its products. They must seize these products, but more importantly, also take over the means of production which make the goods (the factories etc). Only this will allow a systematic and permanent social change, as opposed to a bit of “affirmative shopping”. This is what the Basotho resisters failed to do, concentrating on selfish short term gains.
The class aspect was notably lacking in that many of the looters were themselves middle class. Also, the political, rather than economic (or class) nature of the redistribution of wealth was evidenced in the way petit-bourgeois shops were targeted (for their goods), and government offices were torched (for the symbolism of trashing the ruling party), but the really big exploiters like the banks, the United Nations, European Union and the US embassy all remained untouched.
What about the LDF rebels arming “criminals”? Was it a criminal revolt?
Well those who seek true democracy under the global fascist oligarchy known as capitalism know they will be criminalised and demonised by that exploiting elite. So what? If true people’s power is constrained by chains of law, then the people become illegalists as a matter of course. It is our right to fight, no matter what the bosses say! Faced with armoured troop carriers, the mutinous soldiers handed out assault rifles to youths that helped attack the invaders. This showed the working class defending its right to settle local issues locally, a basic libertarian socialist principle. It also broke down the traditional state barriers in which soldiers in a standing army defend privilege against the uprisings of the poor. In Lesotho, the mutineers adopted the direct-action tactic of arming the poor against invading states. In the end it fell short of the libertarian socialist concept of autonomous working class militia, i.e.: the people armed. But it has armed a broad spectrum of Lesotho’s workers and poor. They will be a lot harder to defeat in future than a few thousand soldiers in their barracks were this time around.
REFORM OR REVOLUTION?
What about the real revolutionary project: the construction of a directly democratic society managed by councils of workers and the poor?
Here the water is very muddy. Unlike the Albanian revolt of 1997, when the Western powers invaded to prevent the people achieving grassroots democracy through this sort of initiative, there is not much evidence in Lesotho of the libertarian socialist principle of building the new in the burnt-out shell of the old.
It is notable that virtually the only printed and broadcast views from outside the government came from the opportunist opposition parties, not from the rebel soldiers, the armed populace, or the “criminal” redistributors. This is the in-built bias of capitalist media, which speaks in the garbled lies of the elite and tries to prevent working people from discovering the true nature of such events.
But one area in which democratic construction was evident was among the mutineers, whose delegates angered Modise by telling him (after he called them treasonous and threatened them with force shortly before the invasion) that they could not make decisions themselves, but would have to consult the entire mutineer force first.
This is the principle of participatory democracy. And Modise hated it! Modise also betrayed his class position through his anger at having to deal with corporals who told him in no uncertain terms what they thought of his version of “restoring democracy”.
So, was there the replacement of government by workers power in Lesotho? The answer is that yes, in several quarters, especially among the mutineers, such principles were tactically (if not consciously) upheld. But it does not
matter what terms are used. What matters is whether real tactics and strategies destroy exploitation, empower the oppressed and give every worker and poor person direct political, social and economic control over their lives. When all is said and done, the state was peacefully immobilised for half a year and there was a great deal of direct action, participatory democracy and class-consciousness.
But there was also a crucial failure to address capitalism as a source of oppression, and a tendency to allow opportunistic party politics to shape the civil struggle
The revolt may have been crushed. But its spirit hasn’t – and the political landscape in Lesotho has changed irrevocably. Ties have been forged between workers, soldiers and rural people that did not exist before. Many of these people are now heavily armed.