Johannesburg — South Africa and the tiny kingdom of Lesotho are moving toward closer economic relations. The foreign ministers of the two countries are scheduled today to sign a deal for joint construction of a Lesotho highlands water project.
The closer relations symbolized by this project, which has been on the drawing board for years, are apparently a result of the coup in January which toppled the government of Chief Leabua Jonathan. Chief Jonathan had long been openly hostile toward South Africa's apartheid system of race segregation, and he espoused the cause of the African National Congress -- Pretoria's most prominent black-nationalist foe.
The multibillion dollar project will provide South Africa with water, one of its scarcest natural resources. It will also enable Lesotho to sell its ``white gold'' (water is one of its few natural resources) and to generate hydro-electricity for its own needs.
Because the project will tie the two countries closely together, questions about political compatibility was seen as requisite. Negotiations were consequently subject to delays caused by the repeated intrusion of naked political factors.
The coup which toppled Jonathan and brought Maj. Gen. Justin M. Lekhanya to power removed these obstacles. Significantly, the highland water project was one of the main items on the agenda when President Botha and Lekhanya held their first heads of state meeting last March.
Within days of the coup, Lekhanya made it clear that he would abandon the confrontational attitude of the former regime toward South Africa's rulers. ``It is our committment to normalize relations with South Africa and we shall do all that is humanly possible to achieve this objective,'' he said in his first post-coup public declaration.
Soon afterwards exiled members of the ANC were ordered out of Lesotho, allegedly at the behest of Pretoria. General Lekhanya, however, honored his pledge not to hand political refugees over to South Africa. And, the new Lesotho government has obtained the blessing of the ANC for going ahead with the highland water project, says Vincent Malebo, Lesotho's minister of information.
General Lekhanya's attitude toward South Africa is seen as pragmatic by his supporters. But critics see his approach as both divisive and inimical to the interests of South Africa's black majority.
He has advised Lesotho's 100,000 miners working in South Africa not to be drawn into their host country's political disputes through trade union activity, drawing sharp criticism from James Motlatsi, president of South Africa's powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
``Since Lekhanya came to power he has attacked the NUM at a number of rallies in Lesotho,'' Mr. Motlatsi noted acidly. ``First he said that Basotho working in South Africa must not get involved in South African politics. We did not respond to that. But when he said they must not join the NUM we began to think twice.''
In South Africa, the mine unions accept and represent emigrant miners, and are very wary of any government's efforts to divide the workers according to nationality.
Motlatsi asked accusingly: ``Why is he so interested in miners not joining trade unions? Lekhanya comes here to negotiate conditions of employment for one tribe. Working conditions should be the same irrespective of place of origin. Who is he negotiating for? As far as I am concerned he only represents those who put him in power. We reject any deals or negotiations Lekhanya makes with anybody. . . .'' There has been much speculation that Lekhanya's takeover is, at least indirectly, the result of an economic blockade placed on Lesotho by South Africa just prior to Jonathan's fall.
One well-placed western diplomat says he is convinced that the ``new Lesotho,'' as its new rulers have dubbed their regime, is a zealous guardian of its sovereignty -- within the constraints of its geographical position within, and economic dependence on, South Africa.