When does "people power" become anarchy, forcing a "big power" to intervene?
It's a tough question for the new South Africa, whose president, Nelson Mandela, is determined to spread democracy throughout the troubled African continent.
Mr. Mandela lives with the legacy of the former apartheid government that tried to impose its will on the rest of southern Africa through military intervention. Mandela would rather "jaw-jaw" than "war-war," putting him in conflict with the presidents of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola. In August, they thumbed their noses at Africa's most important leader by intervening militarily in the messy Congo conflict and thus defeating Mandela"s diplomatic efforts.
Closer to home, Mandela learned this week that sometimes only might will set things right. Just before dawn Sept. 22, some 600 South African soldiers crossed into the tiny kingdom of Lesotho.
For much of its history, Lesotho's politics was influenced by South Africa's apartheid government, which installed and deposed leaders at will.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is acting president while Mandela is traveling abroad, told Parliament yesterday that military intervention was justified because the Lesotho capital of Maseru is "a city under siege." He read from "desperate" letters from embattled Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who on Sept. 16 and 19 begged South Africa and other nations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to send in a peacekeeping force to reestablish order. Two hundred troops from Botswana were expected to join the South Africans.
For seven weeks, Lesotho opposition parties and civilians have maintained a vigil in front of King Letsie's palace to push their view that the May 23 elections won by Mr. Mosisili's Lesotho Congress for Democracy were rigged. The vigil turned into a siege in the past 10 days, with youths hijacking government vehicles, chasing government officials from offices, and snipers shooting at Cabinet ministers.
The opposition parties claim widespread electoral fraud allowed the government to win 79 out of 80 seats with just 61 per cent of the vote.
Mandela has taken up the issue with his colleagues in the SADC, a regional organization he believes can build peace and prosperity in Africa. A South African supreme court justice investigated the Lesotho elections. He delivered his report to Mandela earlier this month. Mandela delayed its release until it was read by SADC leaders.
In that time gap, the Lesotho opposition became convinced Mandela was trying to cook the results. By the time the report was published, revealing that there was no proof of widespread electoral fraud, the opposition was too far gone to listen. The protests had begun.
Buthelezi said the point of military intervention in a sovereign country was not to impose a political settlement but rather "to create a safe environment" in which talks could take place.
During the initial intervention, three South African soldiers were killed and 11 wounded in the fighting to secure the palace, the central business district of Maseru, military bases, telecommunications, and an important dam, which was built to provide South Africa with water.
Neither Mandela nor his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, relishes the role of African policeman.
But that may not be the case for Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Intensely jealous of Mandela, the belligerent Mugabe split the SADC over his insistence this month that military intervention was the right approach in war-torn Congo.
Buthelezi said South Africa wants nothing more than to protect the democratic process in Lesotho. And presidential spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said South Africa feared the crisis could boil over into South Africa.
Lesotho borders KwaZulu Natal, a province already racked by violence stemming from the political rivalry between Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
That it was Buthelezi who delivered the news of South Africa's military intervention in Lesotho was testament to Mandela's diplomatic efforts at achieving peace, at least within his own country. In his absences from South Africa, Mandela always makes Buthelezi acting president, a major reason Buthelezi has agreed to rapprochement with the ANC.
FACTS ON LESOTHO
Size: 11,720 sq. mi., about the size of Massachusetts.
Population: 2 million.
Government: constitutional monarchy since independence from Britain in 1966. Head of state is King Letsie III. Prime Minister is Pakalitha Mosisili.
Gross national product: $1.5 billion (1995), mostly provided by citizens working in South Africa. Chief export is diamonds.
Chief religion: Christianity, 80 percent.