By Thoboloko Ntšonyane

MASERU – The visa days extension for Basotho crossing to the neighbouring South Africa (SA) has been one of the issues that were under spotlight during the recent inaugural Bi-National Commission (BNC) session between the two countries that took place on Wednesday and Thursday last week in Pretoria, SA. 

This BNC is the result of an agreement signed by the two countries in November 2021 to elevate the structured bilateral mechanism from a Joint Bilateral Commission of Co-operation (JBCC) that is held at a ministerial level, to a BNC that is presided over by the two Heads of State and Government President Cyril Ramaphosa and Prime Minister Ntsokoane Matekane respectively.

The border movement and Basotho living in SA in search of economic opportunities without legal documents have been a thorny issue for quite some time between these two nations. While Lesotho is a developing country, her only immediate neighbour, SA, stands as an economic giant in Africa and holds the status of a second-tier economic powerhouse.

There have previously been talks of free movement of people and goods between Lesotho and SA, however this arrangement has never seen the light of day.

If this arrangement sees the light of the day, it will become a relief to many Basotho who cross over to SA on a regular basis for education, work, and medical attention amongst others. Presently, SA is giving Basotho a 30 days period to stay in their country, and this new arrangement will see those days extended by another 60 days making them 90 days, three months period.

Given its geographical location, Lesotho as an enclave, has only an immediate neighbour which is SA. Also these two neighbours share the membership of many international organisations and regional economic communities (RECs) such as Southern African Customs Union (SACU), Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU), and Commonwealth Members among others.

Many Basotho cross the border into SA from time to time to attend to their affairs in that country.

Previously, the SA government had extended a dispensation to regular border users and had issued six months visa permits. However, these were canceled and in 2015, the SA government approved a new dispensation for Basotho, where eligible Basotho would apply for a four-year Lesotho Special Permits (LSP) and then Basotho applied in numbers as over 90 000 were issued. When the LSP permits expired in 2019, LEP permits were introduced for Basotho.

According to SA’s government, “the objective of this dispensation was to document Lesotho nationals who were in South Africa illegally as a result of the socio-economic crisis in Lesotho. It allowed Lesotho nationals to sojourn in the Republic with relaxed conditions; provided them with work, study or business permits and suspended their deportation.”

From time to time many Basotho who were found to be in that country without proper documents were deported back to the country and while others were arrested and detained in the infamous Lindela Repatriation Centre.

“I welcome the discussions intended to eventually come up with a Lesotho-South Africa Specific migration model in terms of better managing migration between our two countries in line with the special relationship and the unique geographical location of Lesotho.

“We were also very delighted that we were able to discuss some of the daily issues of concern around migration, study and work permits for our citizens and do hope the remaining issues will be resolved in the coming months.

“We also appreciate the positive discussions around the possible extension of the entry visa for Basotho into South Africa from 30 days per visit to 90 days per visit. This gesture would go a long way in resolving some of the challenges related to the cross-border movement of our peoples,” said the PM.

To this effect, the two Lesotho’s Minister of Home Affairs Hon Lephema Lebona and his SA counterpart, Dr Aaron Motswaledi were charged with the responsibility to finalise work on the new model on migration between the two countries that see eased movement of people and goods between the borders.

The BNC meeting also served as a platform for the two countries to strengthen bilateral relations.

It will be recalled that on May 23, earlier this year, President Ramaphosa and His Majesty King Letsie III jointly launched the construction of the major works of Polihali, of the Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). When complete, Polihali Dam is expected to supply water to SA in addition to that already supplied by the Katse Dam.

Also coming out of the BNC meeting, the two countries, according to Matekane, had “agreed to strengthen cooperation and partnership on water and green energy resources aimed at achieving energy sovereignty and sustainable use of water for industrialisation and households’ consumption.”

The PM also hailed the partnership of the flagship LHWP as a critical and strategic component of importance for both these two countries and their inhabitants.

The high-level meeting co-chaired by both the PM and SA’s President also talked about the issue of illegal mining practiced by some Basotho in the derelict mines of the neighbouring country.

It would be recalled that some Basotho are still trapped in one of the decommissioned mines owned by Harmony Gold in the Free State province. It is reported that over 30 illegal miners, some believed to be Lesotho nationals, have lost lives underground in May and remain trapped to date and since then,  there have been efforts to recover those bodies.

The Presidency said: “We welcome the commitment of the government of Lesotho to cooperate with South Africa to deal with challenges of illegal mining in our country. Such activity carries a great social and economic cost for both our countries. 

“We were deeply saddened by the unfortunate loss of the lives of illegal miners in Harmony Gold Mine in Welkom. Our respective governments are working with the mining company on the best methods and plan to retrieve the bodies of the miners without endangering the rescue personnel.”

SA also commended the government with the work of continuing with the National Reforms Processes that are presently halted owing to the ongoing court case.

The Inaugural Session of the BNC was preceded by Ministerial Sectoral Meetings a day prior to the meeting by Heads of State and Government on September 28.

The session consisted of the following Sectoral Committees and were co-chaired by the Ministers from relevant portfolios of both countries: Strategic Political Cluster co-chaired by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation; Security and Stability Cluster co-chaired by the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans; Economy Cluster co-chaired by the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition;  Social Cluster co-chaired by the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation; Good Governance Cluster co-chaired by Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs.

The next BNC session will be held in Lesotho next year.

“The Summit noted progress on a number of key fields and areas of cooperation including on political and strategic cooperation; Defence and security; education and training; information, communications and technology; sports and recreation; trade and industry, including the implementation of cross-border value chain projects; migration; Social development; water and energy; health and labour; diplomatic consultations; to mention but few areas and fields of cooperation.

“The Summit noted that while there is commendable progress made under the 2001 JBCC framework, there are a number of challenges and outstanding matters to be addressed to ensure smooth trade facilitation and investments, ease movement of people, goods and services given the unique geographic locations and proximity of the two neighbourly countries.

“In this regard, the Summit of the two Heads of State and Government directed the respective Ministers of Home Affairs to finalise work on establishment of a new model on migration to facilitate ease of movement of people, goods and services between two countries,” reads the joint communique by both countries.

There will be a Joint Action Plan that will serve as a monitoring and evaluation progress tool for the resolutions made at the BNC meeting.