Crossing the Lesotho-South Africa border

One man and a short journey across the Lesotho border capture South Africa’s awkward economic and social relationship with “the Kingdom in the Sky”.

I first met Samuel* on a street near my suburban Johannesburg home where he was pushing a trolley piled with recyclable plastic and tin cans up a steep hill.

I was interested in writing an article on the “street surfers” of Johannesburg: a name I gave to the men who surf between traffic on their trolleys filled with recyclable goods. The plastic, paper, glass and cans are then taken to recycling sites across the city for cash.

When I had gone for early morning runs I had been intrigued by the silhouettes of figures that moved with the sun rising behind them in the early hours of the morning to pick through other people’s garbage, particularly when this exhaustive task could have been more easily replaced with begging or crime.

It was, as most of our relationship would be, a friendly yet awkward encounter. I stopped to say hello and to introduce myself. His English was limited but he explained he had come from Lesotho to find work in Johannesburg and, having found few employment opportunities, he sought refuge with the other Basotho street surfers who had arrived with similar aspirations.

Despite pushing his loaded trolley across the city almost every day of the week, Samuel has a slight build and could pass for a sixteen year-old, instead of his actual 29 years.

I invited him for a meal at my house where I interviewed him about his life.

I remember him holding up a glass of orange juice and saying: “You see this juice? This is Lesotho. The glass is South Africa. We are trapped inside.”

This moment captured the feeling of desperation that drives many Basotho across the South African border, often illegally, in search of greener pastures. Lesotho’s 25.3% unemployment rate, in a population of nearly 1.9 million leave many in a similar position.

The life expectancy of males in Lesotho is 39, with this tiny landlocked country baring the second highest HIV prevalence in the world. That means 310,000 people were living with HIV in 2015, according to UNAIDS.


My interview with Samuel took me into his childhood, where he was orphaned from a young age, losing his mother during his initiation in the mountains. When he returned she was already buried, a sudden loss that he says haunted him throughout his life.

As he grew older he looked after his family’s cows and horses and sought in vain for employment in his home country. Eventually word of mouth brought him over the border into South Africa where he would find ‘a home’ in park near my house.

Here he would cook by fire, bathe in the river and sleep under the stars at night as Johannesburg, “The City of Gold”, pulsed on unphased.

Samuel’s story fits into a long history of migration between Lesotho and South Africa. An article in Migration Policy showed that in 2003, 37% of those interviewed in Lesotho had a family member in South Africa.

At one point, Lesotho stood as the country with more of its labour force working outside its borders than within. Both during and after apartheid, much of South Africa’s lucrative mining profits have been on the backs of Basotho workers.

It was once a place of refuge for anti-apartheid activists in exile but high unemployment rates and more vigilant border control has turned it into a landlocked reservoir of easily exploitable labour.

Casual incarceration

It was not long until Samuel was ringing the doorbell more frequently, coming past the house for a cup of tea, a warm meal and a place to charge his cellphone.

Maria, the domestic worker at my home, would often act as a translator between us as she speaks Sepedi or Northern Sotho. She felt a strong maternal pull towards Samuel whose desperation plucked at her heartstrings. Sometimes all three of us would sit in the kitchen discussing a strange cocktail of subjects.

Samuel could not understand why we wanted to make toast (“The bread is fresh, why do you want to make it hard?”), just as Maria and I could not understand his almost nausea-inducing aversion to anything sweet.

Once he told me it was good that I washed the dishes “because that is the women’s role”. Maria and I then spent the next half hour discussing the topic of gender equality in the household, with Maria teasing that perhaps “he would not become my son-in-law after all”.

Samuel’s visits to our house became a solace from the elements, but also from the police who, despite their reputation for tardiness when responding to serious crimes, always managed to pay Samuel and his friends regular threatening visits.

Some days, Samuel would arrive at the house with the smell of smoke clinging to his clothing. His eyes would well up as he described how the police set fire to his meagre belongings: his blankets, recycling materials, books and clothing, and sometimes took the other street surfers’ cellphones or money.

We soon saw fences being erected around the parks where many of Samuels peers lived at night; their orange fires were no longer seen alongside the busy roads.

From November, Samuel suddenly stopped visiting. He stopped sending “Please Call Me’s” and he stopped answering his phone. Maria and I wondered whether he had gone home for Christmas but suspected that he would have said goodbye first.

Our other guesses were that he had been arrested, or perhaps detained in Lindela, a repatriation centre for migrants that is notorious for its ill-treatment of undocumented foreign nationals. He had been detained there once before.

Our fourth guess was one we suggested tentatively, because the possibility of it being true was too grim to discuss openly.

Two and a half months passed with Maria and I asking other street surfers whether they had seen Samuel. No one had. We weighed up the little we actually knew about him and realised we were facing few solutions.

We considered contacting his church, where the pastor had told Samuel he could visit if he had any further issues with the police. We thought of phoning Lindela and asking whether someone with his name and surname was there. It seemed a desperate but slightly consoling action.

During this time of uncertainty, I felt the full force of Johannesburg’s apathy for the unknown faces who cross its borders, sit on its street corners, traverse its suburbs, commute through its traffic, sell sweets to pedestrians and recycle its unwanted waste.

To so much of the city (the police force, the xenophobic mobs, the private security guards, the suburban families) Samuel is merely another unwanted, unknown body seeking a better life in a city that, for those without means, will chew you up and spit you out.

As the days passed and Maria and I planned how best to work within this system, the doorbell rang. “It’s Samuel” said the voice on the other side of the intercom.

Amid our shouts, laughter, questions and gesticulations, Samuel slowly entered the house. Maria and I pointed out all the changes: He had grown a small beard. He had lost weight. His shoulders seemed narrower than before. His skin was paler. He had yet to answer us as we asked him where had been for the fifth time. “Please give me water first,” he asked, falling into a chair with an air of exhaustion.

He sat down with his glass of water and said simply: “Kgolegong. In prison.” Two and a half months ago, Samuel had been arrested by the police when he decided to fight back in ‘his first and last fight’.

One of the Basotho street surfers who had had too much to drink decided to antagonise Samuel and his friend when they were walking to their home near the river. Samuel defended himself when he turned violent, only to find himself handcuffed soon after and driven to Johannesburg Central Prison.

Initially he did not panic. “I thought they would understand I was only defending myself,” he recalls. But days turned into weeks, interspersed with confusing visits to the Randburg magistrates court where he was told they were checking whether he had a criminal record.

He did not, but the process took up to two months nonetheless.

“I would rather be homeless than be inside that place again,” he said, looking at the floor.

“There were up to 60 of us in one room. We were not given supper. Only bread at midday. I was not even allowed outside, I didn’t see the sun.”

Samuel’s account echoes the cause of protests within the prison that took place in October 2016. Prisoners set fire to the prison to challenge the inhumane living conditions inside.

Eventually, when the charges against Samuel were dropped, he was ordered to be deported back to Lesotho, but police released him back onto the streets of Johannesburg considering the deportation too much time, money and effort.

From the other side

In December, I travelled with my partner to Lesotho en route home from a long cross-country road trip. The irony of living less than five hours from our landlocked neighbour and never having even visited weighed heavily on my conscience in an attempt to better understand both my relationship to Samuel, and the history of his country.

The internet advice was gloomy, describing Lesotho as road-less, ATM-less and petrol-less.

We crossed the Makhaleng Bridge border post expecting the worst. Imagine our relief when we found roads better tarred than in South Africa, numerous petrol stations and easily accessible ATMs.

We laughed with locals about the morbid portrayal of Lesotho on online forums and travel sites. “South Africans see Lesotho as so much less developed than it really is,” said a young professional we met on a tour around the Mohale Dam, one of the many dams that make up most of South Africa’s water supply, another fact of which few South Africans are aware.

We spent our short visit to Lesotho driving, hiking and meeting locals amid the breath-taking mountains between Mohale’s Hoek, Mohale’s dam and Maseru.

What struck us was the sense of cultural preservation within the communities we passed: Sesotho street names and cultural attire shone brightly wherever we went, in contrast to the English and Dutch town names and architecture in South Africa that capture its colonial history.

Lesotho gained its independence from the British in 1966, twenty-eight years prior to South Africa.

But even earlier than this, in 1868, the Basotho King, King Moshoeshoe, appealed to Queen Victoria to make then Basutoland a British protectorate in response to the Boer-Basotho wars.

This was after Moshoeshoe had proven the strength of the Basotho army when they defeated both the Boers and the British in 1848 and 1851 respectively. This resulted in an immunity against Afrikaans and English influence, and a national heroic admiration of King Moshoeshoe.

We learned about much of this during our trip when we stopped at the Morija Museum and Archives which has been open since 1956 in an attempt to better understand our internal neighbour. I studied history until my final year at school but learnt about much of this for the first time.

Border control

On one unmarked and meandering hike through the mountains and valleys surrounding Mohale Dam, we passed many herders whose presence was heard before being seen by the musical cacophony of their cattle’s bells ringing against their necks. Most wore their Basotho blankets across their shoulders with a staff in their hands.

They smiled at us two foreigners are we scrambled up the hills they know well, and slid inelegantly on our bums down the sandier valleys. One shouted directions at us when we meandered down a dead-end.

All waved as we moved between their sheep, horses and cows. I reflected on Samuel’s less amicable welcome on the streets of Johannesburg.

I thought about this too on our final day in Lesotho when we drove towards the Maseru border to join the queues of Basotho who, for an array of reasons, were making the crossing too.

A lady with three children was stopped at the border. She had not brought the birth certificate of one of the children whose surname was different to hers.

The border official continuously repeated that she was denied entry. The lady shook her head, “I do not understand. We were let in last time.”

The official, a white, Afrikaans male, eventually lost his temper. He exited his office and came to stand face-to-face with the lady and her children, explaining loudly that if she attempts to cross the border she will likely be separated from her children, who were now clinging closely to her in anxiety.

Later, we saw the border official standing in the shade away from the piercing sun, inhaling deeply on a cigarette. The look on his face said he hates this job.

Our turn to cross the border had come.

We slid our passports over to the official who smiled, made some small talk and stamped our passports. Moments later we were back in South Africa. There was no sign welcoming us as there was into Lesotho at the Makhaleng Bridge border post a few days earlier.

I eventually met up with Samuel a short time after arriving home. He was not able to go back to Lesotho over Christmas for an array of reasons, including job hunting during this less competitive time.

He managed to find work with a construction company which would start in the middle of January. “I hope they pay me this time,” he says, reflecting on the exploitation he faced as a construction worker in the past.

I passed him a packet. Inside was a traditional Basotho blanket I bought for him in Maseru. He took it out gingerly, wrapped it around his shoulders briefly and then refolded it before placing it back into the bag.

“Keep it for me until I am able to go home,” he said. I nodded, later adding it to the small pile of items I am safeguarding for him until he is able to return to the Kingdom in the Sky.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Banner photo by Kim Harrisberg.

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