DANIEL: In the mountains of Lesotho, cowherds make their way home for another day. Not a lot changes in these alpine villages where most live a subsistence existence in this poor, yet enchanting country. They’ve lived this way for generations, weathering harsh winters among some of Africa’s highest and most magnificent peaks but even here in this remote mountain kingdom, world economics are bringing about change.
At the request of its tribal King, Lesotho became a British protectorate to avoid Afrikaner control in the 1800’s and despite being geographically surrounded by South Africa, it still survives as a Kingdom in its own right but over the last six years, thousands of the people of Lesotho have come down from the mountains to find work in modern textile factories to support their families and something’s gone terribly wrong.
A quarter of Lesotho’s workers have lost their jobs since the country’s status as a protected trader changed at the beginning of this year and while these workers still have jobs, the future of the industry is far from assured as the remaining companies scramble for survival.
Six years ago, Asian textile manufacturers descended on Lesotho after a preferential trade deal allowed African nations priority access to the United States clothing market. They set up factories virtually overnight and began churning out cheap clothing using African labour but a few months ago rules restricting textile exports from Asia to the United States expired and now all of these factories are empty.
As fast as the industry sprang up in this nation of mountain villagers, it’s crashing down taking thousands of families with it. One of those sacked was Ntebeleng Rathebe. She supported her four daughters by working at this plant in Lesotho’s second city of Mapotsoe for five years.
NTEBELENG RATHEBE: It’s miserable. We won’t have nothing at all. Life is impossible for us. Yes.
DANIEL: Ntebeleng was one of many left standing at the gate when workers returned from the Christmas holidays and their employers were gone. Now she’s one of thousands out of work, which for union official Shaw Labakae, is a familiar story.
So four thousand people turned up to work and the factories were closed?
SHAW LABAKAE: Yes were closed.
DANIEL: All that’s left is an armed security guard and an unpaid wages bill.
SHAW LABAKAE: It’s under liquidation and the liquidators are suppose to sell the asset to pay the workers their terminal benefits.
DANIEL: Ntebeleng still lives in town, miles away from her family. She and others spend their days looking for works at the factories still operating.
Is there any work today?
NTEBELENG RATHEBE : They are waiting for someone to come out and get them hired, in, inside.
DANIEL: So there might be some work today or not?
NTEBELENG: They don’t know.
DANIEL: They’re potentially worse off now than they were before the textile industry arrived.
SHAW LABAKAE: It certainly creates an expectation of job security and what happens is that most of the workers they migrate from their rural areas to urban areas to find the job and they are expecting to be working there for, for quite some time and to just shut up shop creates a lot of problems for them and even for the economy.
DANIEL: But even before its textile industry collapsed, this mountain kingdom subjects were already struggling. Unemployment is as high as fifty five per cent and a third of all adults have HIV or AIDS. Despite its beauty and traditional appeal, the tiny nation has never been able to support itself. Even its trademark item of clothing, this traditional woven blanket is made over the border but these rugged mountain people refuse to relinquish their national pride and they’re trying to weave a better future.
Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world and while recently it’s been relying on textiles to boost its traditional economy, now it’s looking elsewhere to survive and to retain its independence as the Kingdom in the Sky.
In the mountain valley of Mallealea lies one of Lesotho’s best chances of survival. Surefooted Basotho ponies are part of life here and they may yet take Lesotho over the mountain she’s trying to climb.
DAVID MOKALE: The terrain cannot be accessed by roads instead we have to ride the horse in order to access many places in Lesotho.
DANIEL: David Mokale is something of a local hero when it comes to horses and he’s taking me for the last ride of the day.
DAVID MOKALE: For the first time you know it’s a bit scary but after one trek you feel like a hero you know? Like if you just look oh I’ve, I rode the horse like up and down that mountain, oh man!
DANIEL: It’s great!
DAVID MOKALE: Yeah.
DANIEL: While he may seem a simple mountain man, David Mokale has seen the outside world. He trained as an equestrian overseas and even featured in this fashion shoot in an Italian magazine but he’s know the deep poverty of Lesotho life.
DAVID MOKALE: My father was a miner and he worked in the mines in South Africa but there was the crisis in the mines so then he came home. Then it was really difficult because I remember in 1986 I couldn’t go to school because he had no money to pay for our school fees.
DANIEL: Now that financial assistance for his equestrian training has dwindled, David himself is forced to seek a living at home. He and his mother have made this small museum, a hut built in traditional style to draw the tourists.
DAVID MOKALE: As you can see it is quite an artistic thing.
DAVID MOKALE: The loam soil, horse, horse manure, cow dung…
DANIEL: Yeah horse manure.
DAVID MOKALE: … has been mixed together and then the solution will be stuck on the lines. They can only be found in Lesotho.
DANIEL: And while he may have lost his chance at international sporting fame, David has discovered beauty and what he took for granted through the eyes of visitors.
DAVID MOKALE: Some times you know people as the leave they just take everything for granted. Everything becomes normal and then as people from other places come in, you start to realise the importance of living in your area.
DANIEL: The Mallealea Valley has become a model for Lesotho’s tourism industry. By night, locals make money by singing to visitors at the local lodge and by day, pony owners line up their mounts for tourist treks. Europeans, Americans and the odd Australian come here to see traditional life from on high.
DAVID MOKALE: How often have you been on a horse?
MALE TOURIST #1: Never.
MALE TOURIST #2: Never
DAVID MOKALE: Never!
FEMALE TOURIST: I haven’t been on a horse in twelve years.
MALE TOURIST #2: Can you make them go very slow?
DAVID MOKALE: I can make it go very slow. I’ll only be your companion for a short distance.
FEMALE TOURIST: OK
DANIEL: Tourists have funded new school buildings and environmental projects here and they’re already helping offset the textile downturn if only in a small way. Dozens of women have returned from their jobs in the factories and have set up a craft co-op to sell to the tourists. Each of these little dolls represents a villager, most of whom are unemployed.
This is you?
VILLAGE WOMAN: Yes.
DANIEL: With your baby. Which one’s your favourite?
VILLAGE WOMAN: Masfadi.
DANIEL: It may not be large scale manufacturing but without it, these women would be earning nothing. The pony guides refer to the tourists as ‘their diamonds’ because of the value they bring to an area that’s otherwise on the brink of desperate poverty but tourists aren’t the only precious gems in these mountains. Exploitation of Lesotho’s natural assets is providing a glimpse of economic growth. The mountains have begun to pay.
MORUIT MPHATSO’E: These are the plus ten carat stones.
DANIEL: I can’t believe they’re real! They’re so big. How much is this worth?
MORUIT MPHATSO’E: A million at least.
DANIEL: Excuse me while I faint!
These diamonds are the real thing and they’re among the largest and clearest in the world.
So what happens when you find one like this?
MORUIT MPHATSO’E: Everybody gets excited.
From Lesotho’s most remote peaks and valleys, the Letseng Diamond Mine is pulling stones called ‘gin and tonics’ as pure as the environment from which they come.
MORUIT MPHATSO’E: In terms of revenue per carat, we’re the highest in the world. That’s what makes us very very special.
DANIEL: Moruti Mphatso’e has worked in everything from civil engineering to weaving. Now he’s the General Manager of this South African owned operation. He wants this mine to help local villagers climb out of poverty but he knows he can’t help everybody.
MORUIT MPHATSO’E: We realise that the mine can only employ not more than four hundred people and we had close to two thousand applications and people standing at our gate.
DANIEL: It’s hoped the diamond mine will bring tourists and some wealth into this valley but it can’t solve Lesotho’s economic crisis by itself.
Do you think it can continue to be independent?
MORUIT MPHATSO’E: There are people who are saying Lesotho should, should be part of South Africa. Personally I think it should stay independent but we really have to double our efforts you know to make sure that people survive here.
DANIEL: But sacked textile workers like Ntebeleng still go home to their families almost empty handed. They can barely eke out a living here on the dusty mountainside where much of the food is provided by the World Food Programme.
NTEBELENG RATHEBE: I cannot bring foods here like I use to before. Like now it’s winter. They don’t have winter clothes like I use, use to send them before so it’s difficult.
DANIEL: There are so few options here that survival for the people of Lesotho – Africa’s Kingdom in the Sky – will continue to be an uphill struggle.