WHEN the king of Lesotho died last week in a car crash, even his political opponents whom he ousted in a palace coup stepped forth to mourn him.
Most African kings are little more than tribal figureheads with limited power. But not in Lesotho, the tiny mountain country stuck in the middle of South Africa.
As head of state, King Moshoeshoe II had an almost mythical stature among the nation's 1.7 million people, many of them herders who see him as the ultimate shepherd of men.
''The king is a symbol of unity. We look upon him as an umbrella which protects us from the scorching sun,'' says Francis Chiya, mourning in a remote mountain village in the middle of the country. ''I feel like I have lost a great father.''
He and thousands of fellow hillside villagers were planning to trek for several hours on their hardy ponies, the main source of transport in the isolated peaks, to attend the king's burial this weekend at the royal graveyard near the capital, Maseru.
The residents cloaked in their all-purpose blankets seem frozen in time, their lives governed by a feudal-like system of chiefs and superstition.
For a nation of herders, no one thought it odd that the monarch had been checking up on his cattle at 1 a.m. before his fatal ride on a treacherous winding peak. In this largely rural nation, livestock are taken seriously as symbols of wealth and worth and the king was seen to be acting as a thoroughly responsible Basotho by making sure his animals were safe at such an hour.
Moshoeshoe II, the direct descendent of the founding father of Lesotho, is the only royal head of state in Africa aside from Swaziland. Other monarchs, such as Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini of South Africa, are battling to maintain influence in competition with modern-day political parties and other tribes.
But the Lesotho monarchy seems to have an enduring place in the hearts and minds of the nation's largely homogeneous Basotho ethnic group.
''The monarchy will remain in Lesotho for a long time. It is rooted in the people and is a source of grass-roots unity. There must be someone on the throne,'' says Gilbert Ramolahluane, assistant secretary general of the ruling Basotho Congress Party (BCP), whose democratically elected government Moshoeshoe briefly toppled in a 1994 palace coup.
He and other politicians say the monarchy has the potential to create an oasis of stability on a continent of turmoil.
Protected by monarchy
The role of the king and his 22 primary chiefs has also been a unifying force in protecting the identity of Lesotho, which has struggled over the past three centuries to retain a sense of independence.
The economy is dependent on South Africa, which is the primary source of income for thousands of Lesotho migrant workers. If it were not for the kingdom, many locals say, Lesotho would be swallowed up by South Africa.
Despite its proximity to the giant surrounding state, during the later years of minority white rule in South Africa Lesotho's government asserted its independence by giving haven to black liberation activists of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. South Africa at one point closed off the borders to try to strangle Lesotho.
These days, the new ANC government in South Africa prefers diplomatic pressure to show its disapproval of nondemocratic behavior.
The first King Moshoeshoe founded the Lesotho nation in the 19th century. Seeking to defend his Basotho people from outside attacks by Boers and Zulus, he enlisted the protection of Britain, which later granted independence in 1966.
Moshoeshoe II was deposed twice and sent into exile by military governments, spending much of the time in Britain where he studied at Oxford and developed a taste for tennis.
His eldest son orchestrated a coup on his behalf in 1994. The son, Letsie III, suspended parts of the constitution and ousted the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle.
The coup was reversed after intervention by South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Letsie stepped down and Moshoeshoe was reinstated as constitutional monarch a year ago by the BCP, which realized the monarchy is an important force in society. Until his death, the King maintained a low profile, apparently accepting the government's ultimatum to stop meddling in politics or abdicate.
The BCP government expects to have a smooth relationship with Letsie III, who was chosen by the country's chiefs to succeed his father as king.
Now that the monarchy has been reinstated and the military brought into line by South African threats to intervene, harmony is likely to prevail.
''There is a good relationship between the king and the prime minister,'' Ramolahluane says. ''We brought back the king for the stability of the country. We have nothing against the king, if he respects democracy and does not interfere in politics.''
Next prime minister in question
Letsie III will probably do just that. A popular fellow who regularly mixes with his subjects in the capital's nightspots, Letsie does not seem to have the political ambitions of his father. He does not seem to relish the political limelight and had contemplated attending university in Cape Town before his father's unexpected demise.
Letsie would fulfill his new responsibilities as constitutional monarch properly, according to intimates of the royal family.
While stability seems assured for royal succession, more worrying is who will be the next prime minister. Mr. Mokhehle is ailing and aged, and his aides believe he may not finish his term, which ends when the next general elections are due in 1998.
''This could be the next phase of disruptions,'' says one Western diplomat.
Part of Moshoeshoe II's popular appeal was that he seemed to be one of the common people, despite having a reputation as an intellectual who savored his political and economic studies at Oxford.
The task ahead is to consolidate the regal line, says Vincent Malebo, Moshoeshoe's protocol chief and a senator from the royalist Maremathon Freedom Party. Mr. Malebo says he has told the new king: ''Boy, get married. I have an ox saved for your wedding. Get married and give us new kings.''