by: Gary Kynoch and Theresa Ulicki with Tsepang Cekwane, Booi Mohapi, Mampolokeng Mohapi, Ntsoaki Phakisi and Palesa Seithleko

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 21

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


Movement backwards and forwards across borders for work is often considered to be the primary form of unauthorized movement in Southern Africa. In southern Lesotho, a new and particularly dangerous form of two-way cross-border movement has become entrenched. This situation warrants the label “crisis”; a crisis which is devastating parts of the countryside in both Lesotho and the northern Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

Media and official attention has focused on the extreme violence which accompanies cross-border stock raiding. This paper seeks to understand the social and economic roots and impacts of cross-border stock theft. Such an analysis is a vital first-step towards the resolution of the conflict since it shows not only why the violence occurs but who stands to benefit from its perpetuation. The analysis is also helpful to understanding the extent to which the existence of an international border is implicated in the cycle and counter-cycle of violence. This paper concludes with an assessment of official reaction, or inaction, on the crisis.

The findings are based upon wide-ranging interviews with 147 respondents in 10 villages in southern Lesotho. A complementary study is now recommended on the South African side of the border. The stock theft epidemic is characterized by the following features:

No-one is immune from small-scale and organized raiding. Stock theft, coupled with decreasing agricultural production and increasing unemployment, deepens poverty and desperation. At the household and community level, the research found the following:

Prevention efforts have involved some cross-border cooperation between villages to apprehend thieves and return cattle but these efforts are sporadic and make little dent on the problem. They often also lead to vicious reprisals from stock-theft syndicates. Vigilantism is on the rise in the face of widespread perceptions that the police and the courts on both sides of the border are either ineffectual or corrupt.

This paper examines the inadequacies of the policing of the crisis, highlighting the low rates of arrest and prosecution. The difficulties of geography and inadequate resources which hamper effective policing are highlighted. Only in areas where the army is stationed or soldiers patrol the border has there been any marked decrease in theft.

The situation is bound to deteriorate further unless there is effective national-level attention and intervention. The low-level civil war in the nearby Tsolo district of South Africa in 1997 was fuelled by a potent mix of poverty, mine retrenchments and stock theft. This conflict could well pale in comparison with the volatile situation building in the southern Lesotho border zone. Here, the same combination of factors are compounded by ethnic and national difference, and the strategic manipulation of borders by stock thieves on both sides.

Both governments need to recognize that this local crisis could escalate into a major conflagration and intervene to defuse the situation, calm tensions and work towards effective policing and a political solution. Within Lesotho, the passage of a new Stock Theft Act promises heavy penalties for the shadowy figures involved in organized raiding, provided they can be caught. The institution of a national stock register also seems a step in the right direction though its likely effectiveness is debated.

Both the Lesotho and South African governments should acknowledge that a crisis situation exists and that this is a regional problem. Only when national governments, working together with local stakeholders, take the problem seriously and begin cooperating can workable initiatives to halt this devastating social and economic plague be implemented.