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Lesotho: From labour reserve to depopulated periphery

Mine workers in SA

MASERU - 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.

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. 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.

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.

Migrant Labour and South African Mining

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. 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 25 percent HIV/AIDS prevalence rate believed to be 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.

Brain Drain

There is a long history of educated Black Africans moving back and forth between Lesotho and South Africa. 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.

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. 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.

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.


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.

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.

-Extracted from Migration Policy Institute

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