Chief Joseph Leabua Jonathan (1914-1987) was the first prime minister of independent Lesotho. For 20 years beginning in 1966, until he was ousted in a military coup, Jonathan struggled to maintain a good-neighbor status despite the racial policies of the Republic of South Africa, which completely surrounds his small country.
Leabua Jonathan was born on Oct. 30, 1914, the son of a minor hereditary chief and the great grandson of Moshesh, founder of Basutoland (now Lesotho). A Protestant, Jonathan was educated in the mission school at Leribe. He converted to Catholicism as an adult.
Basutoland, then as now, lies in southern Africa completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. Until the early 1990s, South Africa was governed by the racist policy of apartheid, or strict and total separation of the races. As such, South African policies had a major impact upon Basutoland. In 1934, Jonathan followed the traditional young Basuto's economic path by going to work in the gold mines of South Africa's Rand. Returning home in 1937, he gained experience in the administration of the Paramount Chief Regent and rose within a year from clerk to the presidency of the Basuto courts and assessor to the judicial commissioner.
Jonathan served in the National Council before acquiring a chief's place there. As adviser to the Paramount Regent, he earned a reputation as a popular progressive leader duly respectful of tradition. He also served on the Panel of 18, the council's constitutional reform committee.
In 1959, Jonathan founded and subsequently led the Basuto National Party (BNP), whose slogan stressed better economic conditions at home and a good-neighbor policy toward South Africa. Despite financial support and campaign management by Catholic priests, the BNP fared poorly. Jonathan himself was defeated but entered the Legislative Council as a nominated member. There, he turned his attention to such injustices as the plight of the Indian community, land tenure, and women's rights. Beginning in 1962, he served on the committee to write a new constitution.
Preindependence elections of 1965 heightened tensions over relations with South Africa. The BNP's moderate stand, as well as its willingness to accept financial support from private South African companies, led to the belief that Jonathan was ruled by the leadership in that country.
Jonathan was defeated, but his party won a slim majority. The deputy BNP leader became interim prime minister until Jonathan could contest a vacated and safe party seat. He then served as prime minister and minister of external affairs, first for independent Basutoland and then for the independent Kingdom of Lesotho (Oct. 4, 1966).
In the January 1970 elections, a serious crisis developed again as the opposition demanded more independence from South Africa. With returns still incomplete, the opposition claimed victory. Jonathan declared a state emergency, suspended the constitution, and arrested his opponents. He also exiled the king for campaigning in violation of his constitutional role. "I have seized power and I am not ashamed of it," he said, leveling a pro-Communist charge against his opponents. More than 150 people died in the riotous months that followed. Jonathan then called for a national coalition, with the opposition in the minor role, to write a new constitution. Calm returned when the Basutoland Congress party agreed.
For the next few years, Jonathan walked a narrow path between cooperation with South Africa and criticism of its policy of apartheid. But by the early 1980s, opposition was building in the country over his autocratic rule. There was renewed hostility when Jonathan permitted China, the then Soviet Union, and North Korea to open embassies in Lesotho in 1982.
South Africa imposed a blockade on the small country on Jan. 1, 1986. This was the beginning of the end of Jonathan's government. It toppled in a military coup just 20 days later. Chief Leabua Jonathan died in 1987. Military rule ended in 1994 and constitutional government of the kingdom was restored.
Biographical information on Jonathan and background material on Lesotho are in Jack Helpern, South Africa's Hostages (1965); and Richard P. Stevens, Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland (1967).