In 1982, while Lesotho’s constitution was suspended under Leabua Jonathan’s government, local communities had their land expropriated without compensation and were forcibly relocated to make way for the Moshoeshoe I International Airport outside Maseru.
The current government’s plan to upgrade the airport at a total cost of M5-billion (R5-billion) has reopened these historical wounds and raised fears of further land grabs.
The long-delayed upgrade is intended to facilitate direct flights to and from Lesotho without having to pass through OR Tambo International Airport in South Africa.
It will include a one-kilometre extension and rehabilitation of the existing runway to handle larger aircraft and the construction of a new VIP terminal building.
The project will make use of undeveloped land falling outside the airport’s current perimeter fence that is also part of the parcel expropriated 37 years ago.
Insisting that all the seized land still belongs to them, residents of 15 surrounding villages have banded together and formed a committee to protect their interests.
They are demanding retrospective compensation for the land taken in 1982 as their precondition for cooperating with the government and releasing more land for the airport upgrade.
The picture is complicated by the fact that despite having no title deeds, the villagers have sold some of it for residential development.
The government appears unclear about how to handle the dispute, with senior officials saying that a cabinet decision will be needed.
In March the villagers asked for a meeting with the Minister of Public Works and Transport, Prince Maliehe. He has not yet responded.
Recalling the events of 1982, the spokesperson of the villagers’ committee, Tšeliso Moroke, said that his pregnant mother was about to give birth “when a bulldozer driven by men in army uniforms demolished our homes and destroyed our possessions”.
Moroke said that people who lived in Moeaneng village knew they faced relocation, but expected to be moved to new houses. Only three years later did they receive government houses – most of them one-roomed units built of raw breezeblocks.
Moroke said his mother had to find a refuge for her newborn child in a nearby village, as the shacks that were hurriedly erected after the demolition were often blown away by high winds.
Built in a day from the ruins of their former houses, the villagers’ shacks were weak and porous, he said.
The government houses offered to them to them in 1985 did not match the houses that had been bulldozed, said Moroke. “My parents had a five-roomed house and a garage.”
The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism visited 11 affected households and found them in a sorry state. The units are too small to accommodate a basic domestic utilities. “We used to have toilets, but no longer,” said one of the villagers.
The villagers also lamented the loss of their fields, which they said were grabbed by the government without compensation. The hard-line approach continued after a democratically-elected government assumed power in 1993, they added.
“The owners would see strangers claiming to be government employees erecting yellow poles on their cultivated fields without consulting them,” Moroke said.
Villagers complained that the government’s approach was skewed in favour of chiefs and the royal family. They pointed out that the airport perimeter fence had been forced to change direction to accommodate Tšimo-Ea-Lira, a communal field that belonged to the former king Moshoeshoe II and was worked by his subjects.
“I remember the former principal chief of Matsieng, Seeiso Masupha, saying if there was no compensation, the field of the king – Masupha’s brother – would not be affected. That is exactly what happened,” said Moroke.
Masupha denied the claim, insisting the field was not part of the airport’s layout and saying that his own field next to Tsimo-Ea-Lira was partly expropriated.
The MNN Centre understands that unlike the aggrieved villagers, Masupha was compensated with another field. He said this land “was not even a quarter” of what was taken from him.
However, he conceded that other landowners had not been compensated. “But that’s neither my responsibility nor the King’s. It rests squarely on the airport,” he said.
The area councillor, who is also a member of the Mohlakeng Community Council Land Distribution Committee, Mohau Ntlamele, confirmed that the villagers lack title deeds for land now owned by the airport.
“After my election to the council, I met airport management, and on their map I could see that some new houses built on the land are within the airport’s boundaries. Villagers were warned against new construction, but turned a deaf ear,” Ntlamele said.
At a meeting on 15 May 2019 for villages affected by the upgrade, the airport’s general manager, Letsoaka Sekonyela, warned residents against further construction on the disputed area.
But Moroke told the meeting that the existing perimeter fence marked the limits of airport property and that it did not own land falling outside it.
“The poles [marking parts of airport reserved land] were installed without consulting land-owners,” Moroke told Sekonyela, reminding him that villagers were still hurting from broken promises after losing land under Jonathan and being denied compensation.
Sekonyela, said the government would “engage those who have encroached on airport-reserved land” before the expansion project takes off. He estimated construction could start early next year.
Speaking to MNN, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Mothabathe Hlalele, questioned the villagers’ demands. “One wonders if these people are just taking chances,” he said.
Hlalele echoed Sekonyela in saying that the cabinet would give direction in resolving the impasse.
In 2009, in an attempt to regain control of their fields, the villagers asked lawyer Koili Ndebele to voice their complaints in a letter to former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
“In or about 1982, the dictatorship and oppressive regime of the late Mr Leabua Jonathan forcefully, wrongfully and unlawfully impounded the clients’ fields to build Moshoeshoe I Airport,” Ndebele’s letter reads.
He referred to South Africa’s policy, “where government is consoling victims of apartheid who were deprived of their land many years ago … compensating and/or returning such lands to the victims”.
Ndebele said Attorney-General Tšokolo Makhethe had responded that “government could not be held accountable for things that happened a long time ago”. He had then dropped the matter.
Minister Maliehe told MNN that he had not seen the letter from villagers asking for a meeting. “I am not sure what caused this oversight, unless the letter arrived while I was still in China,” Maliehe said, promising to follow up on the issue.
The airport upgrade, which Hlalele said was between two and three years late, is intended to boost Lesotho’s foreign trade by handling direct flights from abroad.
“Once approved by the cabinet, financiers will pump in funds for the project to take off,” he said.
In addition to extending the runway and building a new VIP terminal, Phase 1 of the project would involve renovating the existing terminal building, installing navigation aids, and generally improving the quality of service at the airport.
“We will upgrade the perimeter road and access and emergency roads; equip the 13.2km perimeter fence with an intruder detection system; rehabilitate Kofi Annan Road from Pioneer Circle to the airport; construct a four-lane express highway at Thota-ea-Moli; and carry out other upgrades that will elevate our airport to International Civil Aviation Organisation standards,” he said.
Hlalele said M2-billion had been earmarked for completion of Phase 1, while the estimated total cost of the project was M5-billion.”
“The European Investment Bank has pledged M1.2-billion, with other billions to be secured from Kuwait, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Abu Dhabi and Arab development funds.”
The private sector was also expected to throw its weight behind the project by investing in hotels and B&Bs at Thota-ea-Moli, on the outskirt of Maseru.