Unbeknown to many, Lesotho is one of three countries in the whole world considered to be a
true enclave. It is completely enclosed within the territory of another state. Given its unique
position, it presents an interesting endeavour to trace the social changes that have transpired in
Lesotho since it gained independence in 1966. This paper discusses social change within
Lesotho's society as analyzed and compared with key anthropology literature on social change in
modern Africa. By drawing from ethnographic materials, media reports, research papers and
journal articles, this paper seeks to foster critical understanding of the social changes taking
place in Lesotho with a major focus on the impact of HIV and AIDS as a driver of social change
in the country and its intricate involvement with the Republic of South Africa.
The earliest known inhabitants of Lesotho were Late-Stone-Age San hunters and gatherers, who
date back to at least the 10th Century AD. By the 16th century, other Bantu-speaking peoples
occupied the land as cattle owners, adapting themselves to the harsh conditions of the
mountains.1 Then known as Basutoland, the people of Lesotho (the Basotho) united under one
king in 1822 called Moshoeshoe the Great. To date, the Basotho identify their origin and strength
from the vision of King Moshoeshoe I, who built the nation on principles of leadership, family,
loyalty, diplomacy and, when necessary, war.2 The Basotho enjoyed years of peace and
prosperity during King Moshoeshoe's reign, enduring wars with the Afrikaner settlers and
British while forging alliances to introduce Christianity and education. This was until Basutoland
became a British Protectorate in 1865 to prevent wars and loss of land from the people. King
Moshoeshoe's death in 1871 marked the beginning of the British colonial era until Lesotho
gained independence in 1966.3
The British employed indirect rule using a dual administration approach with government at the
village level controlled through a hierarchy of chiefs under a “Paramount Chief”. This is
illustrative of Mahmood Mamdani's concept of decentralized despotism where colonial
imperialists sort to exercise control over local people by devolving power to the indigenous
1 Gill, 1993, p. 63.
2 Gill, 1994, p. 32.
3 Orpen, 1979, p. 24.
rulers.4 It also led to a bifurcated state whereby urban societies in Maseru were ruled directly by
the British and rural societies indirectly by chiefs. At the village level, the system of
chieftainship remains largely intact, but after the coup of January 1986, an increasingly
democratic element was introduced by the revival of locally-elected chiefs.
Lesotho's fight for independence has cultivated a strong cultural heritage to overcome challenges
with a sense of pride and a will to survive. This heritage of will is enshrined in the historical
founding of the nation to come together in search of peace and prosperity, to preserve
independence and avoid war, to overcome the apartheid era and political turmoil, and to support
the strong role of the extended family, religion, and chieftainship. As a matter of fact, Lesotho is
the only constitutional monarchy in sub-Sahara Africa today.5 The Prime Minister, Tom
Thabane, is head of government and has executive authority. The King of Lesotho, Letsie III,
serves a largely ceremonial function; he no longer possesses any executive authority and is
prohibited from actively participating in political initiatives. The All Basotho Convention (ABC)
leads a coalition government in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The upper
house of parliament, called the Senate, is composed of 22 principal chiefs whose membership is
hereditary, and 11 appointees of the king, acting on the advice of the prime minister.
Lesotho's geographic location makes it extremely vulnerable to political and economic
developments in South Africa. Its economy is intricately integrated with South Africa's. It is
based on agriculture, livestock, manufacturing, and mining amounting to an 1181 USD gross
4 Mamdani, 1996, p. 26.
5 Kimaryo, Okpaku, Githuku-Shongwe, Feeney, 2004, p. 13.
domestic product (GDP) per capita. Almost 50 percent of the population earn income through
crop cultivation and animal husbandry with nearly two-thirds of the country's income coming
from agriculture.6 With a population of merely 2.2 million, Lesotho is heavily dependent on
inflows of worker's remittances and receipts from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU).
The formal sector is mainly made of female workers in the apparel sector, male migrant miners
from South Africa and government employees. The country is among the "Low Human
Development" countries (rank 160 of 187 on the Human Development Index as classified by the
UNDP, with 48.2 years of life expectancy at birth. Adult literacy is as high as 82 percent.7
Income disparity is among the highest in the world with a Gini coefficient of 54.2.8 Evidently,
Lesotho continues to be deeply entrenched in poverty as evidenced by its economy and reducing
GDP per capita since the colonial period.
6 Bureau of Statistics, 2017, pp. 1-5
7 "World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision". ESA.UN.org (custom data acquired via website). United Nations
Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. Retrieved 10 September 2017.
8 "GINI index". World Bank. Archived from the original on 8 April 2016. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
Key Sectors and themes critical to Lesotho's functioning
Historically, Lesotho's economy is intrinsically woven into the pre and post-apartheid era of
South Africa. For instance, part of the investment and industrialization development in Lesotho
was achieved by companies circumventing political complexities and economic sanctions
associated with pre-apartheid South Africa. Post-apartheid South Africa has experienced a direct
investment in the country, which has had a negative impact on Lesotho. Moreover, the
dependence of Lesotho on the South African economy for migrant labor has had negative effects
on the country's functioning. This further shows how its economy is highly dependent on the
economic landscape in South Africa.9 In fact, by adopting Appadurai Arjun's conceptual
dimensions of globalization, Lesotho's ethnoscape, mediascape, technoscape, finanscape, and
ideoscape are intimately tied to South Africa's.10
One of the most valuable assets available to any country is human resources. This especially
applies to Lesotho given its low population. In addition to having a relatively small population, a
substantial number of Basotho work in South Africa as miners. Lesotho's demography has been
notably impacted due to labor migration. Estimates show that between 40% and 50% of the male
labor force works in South Africa.11 Higher wages offered to miners in South Africa compared to
the meager returns from agriculture has been a major incentive for this migration. Furthermore,
locals cannot buy agricultural equipment to farm in the first place since they do not have enough
capital. The lack of a developed economic base coupled with insufficient natural resources (land)
9 Government of Lesotho, 2002, p. 2.
10 Appadurai, 1990, pp. 295-301.
11 Bureau of Statistics and UNFPA, 1996, p. 46.
is currently the main driving force for male emigration.12 Eventually, when most of the Basotho
men come back home unemployed, they are unlikely to find work in Lesotho. This, and the fact
that Basotho women have adapted to managing their lives without their husbands, gaining
confidence and knowledge about issues formerly dealt with by men causes the men anger and
frustration. Lots of men resort to alcoholism, having the impression that they are of no use in
society. Alcoholism and aggression towards women are a very wide-spread problem in Lesotho.
Agriculture is the backbone of Lesotho's economy. The majority of households subsist on
farming. Despite agriculture being an integral sector to the country's economy, erratic rainfall
and poor irrigation systems have resulted in dramatic fluctuation of production. Poor returns
from agriculture is a major reason for rural-urban migration. Moreover, Soil erosion caused by
human activities – namely poor crop production techniques and overgrazing – then intensified by
natural causes is considered to be the main environmental problem Lesotho faces. The
devastating effects can be seen throughout the country. Lesotho is interspersed with gullies and
vast areas of the country are denuded for vegetation. Soil fertility has plummeted with huge
quantities of topsoil washed away into the rivers of the Eastern Cape. Fortunately, after
independence, the new government took up the battle of soil conservation. Parliament enforced
the ‘Land Husbandry Act' in 1996 to control and improve the use of land and other natural
resources in the country. Poor returns from agriculture is a major reason for rural-urban
migration. Despite Africa having large tracts of unused land as John Galaty puts it, urbanization
has increased in Africa with a significant boom in the informal economy and youth
12 Keegan, 1986, pp. 196-215.
unemployment. In Lesotho, many have opted to live in urban slums to escape rural poverty as in
many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. (Dolan and Rajak)
Education levels are low in Lesotho. In most households, it is usually up to the primary level or
sometimes non-existent for adults. Some children have achieved a secondary school education,
but many drop out due to insufficient funds for school fees and other school-related activities. In
some extreme cases, the more elderly have never attended school and are completely illiterate.13
Of the poor households, a large proportion does not have any marketable skills. The few who do
possess skills such as sewing, knitting, building, shoe repair and the making of handcrafts. These
are considered to be the main marketable skills. Unfortunately, many of those who possess these
skills lack the means to market their products and services. This is due to the inability to
purchase tools, equipment and other materials or due to ill health.14
13 Turner, 2001, p. 27.
14 Turner, 2001, p. 27.
The impact of HIV/AIDS to social change in Lesotho since
Social change is among the principle issues in socio-scientific theories and anthropology. Since
the 1970s, proponents of modernization theory, neo-Marxists and many others have been
debating who owns the best model and explanation of social change. Accordingly, in order to
accurately trace social change in any setting, it is imperative that a contextual definition of the
term is given. In this paper, the generic definition of social change is given as: “the process of
changing society that takes place on diverse levels: the macro-level (social structure and culture),
the meso-level (e.g. institutions) and the micro-level (based on the individual)”.15 A fitting
example of social change is the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, the entry into the
Federal Republic of Germany and the ongoing transformations of the newly formed German
states. If we trace social change as it occurred in Germany, we can see the disappearance of a
whole social order with drastic social consequences for numerous institutions, communities and
a multitude of individuals.
Social change represents the changes in social structure that occurred in Lesotho's society due to
the pandemic of HIV and AIDS since the colonial period. It stands for a change in its cultural
patterns, basic institutions and the associated social actions. For instance, an observable change
that took place due to HIV and AIDS is the continuously growing number of orphaned children
in the country. On the other hand, social change in Lesotho could also represent the progressive
aspect of the term. A change that must take place in the society to control the pandemic. Such
15 From the internet: http://www.schader-stiftung.de/gesellschaft_wandel/375.php, 2004.
change affects socio-cultural behaviour together with political institutions closely intertwined
within such efforts.
Lesotho has the second highest prevalence rate of this modern pandemic in the entire world at
25.00%, trailing behind Eswatini.16 At the same time, it is also poorer than Eswatini.
Approximately 320,000 adults and children were living with HIV and AIDS in Lesotho as of
2017. Although the first AIDS case was reported in 1986, 20 years after independence, the
impact it has had as a driver of social change in Lesotho dwarfs other sectors in comparison.
Such a high prevalence rate has evidently driven social change in the nation.
Worsened by the current food crisis and chronic poverty in Lesotho, HIV and AIDS has rapidly
changed the social profile and demographics of Lesotho. In the previous chapter, some of the key
sectors and themes critical to the functioning of Lesotho were mentioned at length. Like many
Sub-Saharan countries, Lesotho has had its fair share of political instability and strife after
independence. However, none of these challenges has had a significant impact on the country's
functioning as has HIV and AIDS. This pandemic has dug its vicious claws into the social and
economic fabric of Lesotho affecting all sectors in the country such as human resources,
agriculture, migration, governance and foreign investment just to name a few. The loss of
productive adults and parents to AIDS has resulted in more dependents (children and elderly)
adversely impacting economic development and social reproduction. Children and the elderly
lack the necessary support networks to thrive in Lesotho. As concisely depicted by Claude
16 "HIV and AIDS in Lesotho". AVERT. 21 July 2015. Archived from the original on 2 October 2018. Retrieved 1
Bartelmus, “HIV and AIDS is now accelerating the reversal of past socio-economic gains in
health, education, agriculture, trade and industry” in Lesotho. The confluence of these factors
makes HIV and AIDS suitable to trace social change in Lesotho on the macro, meso and microlevel
as is categorically highlighted in the following paragraphs.
Foremost, tracing social change on a macro-level, the AIDS catastrophe has dangerously
weakened the social and economic fabric of the nation threatening the traditional equity and
social independence of the Basotho. In demographic terms, the impact of AIDS is responsible for
declining growth rates, a stagnant population, and a reduction in life expectancy in Lesotho since
gaining independence. An increased mortality rate among adults has undermined society's
capacity to provide care and security to the most vulnerable. The government has had to
reallocate more funds to fight HIV and AIDS drawing from integral sectors of the economy. Due
to reduced labour supply and productivity, export earnings from Lesotho have declined affecting
strategic sectors of the economy such as agriculture and mining.17 Consequently, the balance of
payments between export earnings and import expenditure as a result of expensive healthcare
goods has come under pressure while the government's budget is also constrained. This has
caused Lesotho to default on debt repayments henceforth requiring economic assistance from the
broader international community. In truth, because of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, perpetual
reliance on foreign aid and international assistance has led the Basotho to feel as though there are
undergoing a new form of colonialism after the British left.
17 Mcmurchy, 1997 (4):11-2.
What are the consequences of receiving this aid for development? Dambisa Moyo accurately
portrays the trappings of foreign aid in Africa, citing how it has led to corruption, debt, inflation
and poverty just to name a few18. A failure of implementing economically-oriented approaches to
development has nullified the impact of aid in Lesotho. Arturo Escobar also argues that the
problematization of poverty and the professionalization of development in Africa ironically led
to the opposite result; massive underdevelopment.19 This can be observed in Lesotho's economy.
Public sector capacity has been eroded over the years as more civil servants are affected and
infected by HIV and AIDS in Lesotho. This has happened while the demand for many public
services has increased. Reduced productivity and performance have resulted from higher levels
of attrition and absenteeism. Similarly, the quality and quantity of service have been negatively
impacted across all sectors. The prospect of social strife and conflict has increased markedly
jeopardizing good governance and social cohesion with the root being the erosion of
governmental and societal systems. Insidious in nature, such has been the far-reaching effects of
AIDS in Lesotho's civil sector.
On the meso-level, AIDS has impacted several institutions throughout Lesotho's society with the
passage of time. Reduced labour supply because of increased mortality and morbidity in the
country has caused great dependence on migrant labour, especially from South Africa.
Concurrently, Lesotho is faced with a catch-22 situation since potential investors and immigrants
are reluctant to migrate into the country due to its high HIV prevalence. To address this situation
18 Moyo, 2009.
19 Escobar, 1991, pp. 658-682.
the burden of the economy is placed upon young children. This has greatly contributed to child
labour. The number of children working in hazardous and exploitative conditions has increased
since the colonial period. Children are left with no other alternative to support their ailing parents
and siblings. To add insult to injury, most children work in hazardous and exploitative conditions
where their rights are infringed upon. Sexual and economic exploitation include the exchange of
sexual services for money and hazardous work like mining during their formative years. Those
infected with AIDS face stigma and violence in such working conditions while the uninfected are
exposed to an increased risk of getting infected through sexual abuse. A vicious cycle of the
spread of HIV and entrenchment of poverty is thus reinforced as more children are infected and
deprived of means to contribute to the society.
HIV and AIDS have deeply affected Lesotho on a micro-level. In fact, Bartelmus observes, “the
ratio between those who must exploit social networks and those who have the ability to support
them may tilt catastrophically into a deficit” due to this pandemic.20 When infected parents die
due to AIDS, orphaned children are left without safety nets upon which to fall therefore
burdening the older population. Grandparents are left to take care of their grandchildren
whenever possible but where this is not an option, young children are “faced with looking after
siblings in an environment often characterized by fear, stigma and discrimination.”21
This phenomenon strikes at the most basic unit of society, the family, and has far-reaching
effects throughout all social institutions in Lesotho. The number of children orphaned as a result
of AIDS is large and will mushroom as adult death rates escalate.22 Many children undergo
20 Bartelmus, 2004, p.
21 Bartelmus 2004, p. 82.
22 UNICEF, 2002, p. 2.
immense psychological stress taking care of ill and dying parents while having to provide for the
family and taking on adult responsibilities. The pressure to abandon school is incredibly high
under such circumstances. This affects their ability to perform well and results in high levels of
withdrawal from school. In orphaned households, many children become despondent and lose
their sense of direction, security and well-being even before they become orphaned.23 As a result,
Lesotho's social structure is breaking apart from the foundation as more and members of the
extended family are dying and leaving behind poorly educated orphans to head the house. Its
society is thus deeply entrenched in poverty pulling such households further below the poverty
line as they struggle to cope.
Last but not least, stigmatization caused by HIV and AIDS has torn apart the unity existing
within Basotho communities since the colonial period. During the struggle for independence, the
Basotho were united against a common enemy. However, after the spread of HIV, people living
with AIDS are discriminated against within their own communities and sometimes cast out. This
stigma is also extended to those affected especially their friends, relatives and caretakers. The
prejudice and rejection faced by the victims only serve to increase their emotional distress.
Sadly, people are discouraged from testing their HIV status to avoid stigma if they test positive.
This strikes at the core of any efforts by health organizations and the government aimed at
curbing the spread of the pandemic. Ignorant of their status, innocent victims henceforth live
with and spread the virus until it is too late.
23 Bartelmus 2004, p. 85.
Anthropology's influence on the study of social change
Anthropology's empirical and inherent interdisciplinary nature stresses critical thinking while
studying social change in Africa. Participant observation has fostered an understanding of local
knowledge, values, and practices from the native's point of view. This plays a key role in
ethnography to prevent bias while studying an ethnic group and obtain empirical information.
Moreover, anthropology has birthed different models of social change such as structural
functionalism, evolutionism and more importantly modernization theories which have greatly
influenced the understanding of so-called underdeveloped countries in Africa. Patterns of social
change (cyclic and one directional) as described in cultural anthropology play an integral role in
determining long-term change in societies. This helps societies to accurately assess their
situation and chart the most favourable path to progress. However, the use of anthropological
methods is limited in carrying out such an exercise because the drivers of social change cannot
be derived scientifically alone but are instead identified by normative evaluations and judgments.
Regarding Lesotho, anthropological studies have played a critical role in informing the global
community of the challenges faced by the country. Due to the studies conducted on social change
in the nation, effective impact mitigation has been on the rise to help control HIV and AIDS. A
broad range of interventions in the economic, legislative, cultural and policy areas have assisted
in the direct prevention, treatment and care of the Basotho. Capacity building efforts and
transformational change from the top down will help lessen the impact of AIDS in Lesotho. For
instance, Lesotho's informal economies are slowly being remade using a bottom of the pyramid
approach.24 Reusing of tin cans in Thlokomelo villages to build houses is a fitting example of the
Basotho embracing environmentally friendly, non-political strategies by emphasizing youth
inclusion and entrepreneurship.25 Despite the future seeming bleak, young children are the
window of hope from which Lesotho is to rise like a phoenix from the ashes to defeat this
24 Dolan and Rajak, Journal of Development Studies 52, no. 4 (2016): 514-29.
25 Bartelmus, 2004, p. 110.
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