LMPS mum on detained SANDF soldiers


  • Policemen claim release instruction came from PM’s office


MASERU – The police remain tight-lipped over details surrounding the arrest three weeks ago of two members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) who illegally entered the country at the Makhaleng port of entry and were later released under dubious circumstances. A leaked conversation between members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) reveals that three men were arrested by the local police after crossing into Lesotho illegally at the port of entry after it was closed.

A police officer in charge of the police reported to colleagues that two of the men claimed to be members of the SANDF, while the third was a Mosotho working in neighbouring South African farms. They were arrested and kept in detention while authorities were informed.

The men were in private clothing and failed to produce identification that they were South African soldiers. They were found in possession of an R4 rifle with 30 rounds. Interviewed by the police the men reportedly said they were on patrol duty along the border and had crossed into Lesotho to buy alcohol and would return to South Africa.

They were put in holding cells overnight as their actions were considered to be in contravention of immigration and national security laws.  “They are so young, and one said he completed his training in the military in 2020,” said one of the alleged police officers in the conversation.

It further emerges from the conversation that following high-level talks between the Lesotho and the South African governments the LMPS was instructed to release the men.  The instruction, the policemen say, came from the Office of Prime Minister Ntsokoane Matekane.

According to the conversation, the soldiers were released into the custody of senior officials from the South African government who undertook that the duo would be properly disciplined “by the SANDF command at its Pretoria headquarters.” Prime Minister Matekane’s press attaché, Thapelo Mabote, told Public Eye this week that his office was not aware of the alleged developments.

Several attempts in the past three weeks to get LMPS spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, to confirm the incident and explain circumstances under which the soldiers were released have failed, with Mopeli on each telling this reporter that he was still confirming details of the story.

In another interview on Wednesday this week the police spokesperson could still not answer Public Eye’s questions, and indicated the paper could go on and run the story without a reaction from the LMPS.

“You are asking me a difficult question, you can go ahead and run the story without voices of other players, no problem,” he said. To observers, these developments have brought to the fore the 2020 arrest of two members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), who were then tortured and languished in jail for months awaiting trial.

LDF members Privates Rorisang Moepi and Dumile Tšoeunyane were on July 19, 2020, arrested in Matatiele, in the South African province of Eastern Cape by the SANDF. They were on an operation to track Basotho livestock apparently seized by cattle-rustlers who fled to the neighbouring republic.

The soldiers were arrested, allegedly for breach of protocol. South African officials accused them of failing to report their entry into the country and were, as a result, apprehended.

The soldiers faced charges of illegal possession of firearms, illegal crossing into the country and illegal possession of ammunition, stock theft and armed robbery. The charge of stock theft was later withdrawn after it was established that the animals were not stolen.

Two days later two SANDF soldiers and two immigration officials were arrested after crossing the Maseru Border Gate into Lesotho to fuel their two private cars at Gateway Filling Station without proper authorisation – in what commentators in the media called retaliation for the earlier arrest of the two LDF members.

They had no passports and permits allowing them to cross into the country.

Following the arrest police said the South Africans were arrested for breaching Lesotho’s Public Health (Covid-19) Regulations of 2020 in travelling into the country without proper documentation.

After spending a night at the Maseru Police Headquarters, Corporals Zibuse Herringtin Mbhense (48), Muzikawulahlwa Shandu (46), Mfundo Mazibuko (38) and Lipuo Lebese (39) appeared before the Maseru Magistrate Court on August 22, 2020, and were charged with contravening Section 30 (b) of the Public Health (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 and Section 33 of the Aliens Control Act No 16 of 1966.

Cabinet then ordered the immediate release of the quartet, with Public Eye revealing at the time that a heated cabinet meeting had ensued with then Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro moving for the release of the South African nationals, with some ministers backing the idea because of “fear of a military attack from the South African Army.”

The Lesotho government then pushed for urgent engagement with South African counterparts to facilitate the release of the Lesotho soldiers.

“Government is concerned about the health and welfare of these LDF officers and will work towards resolving this issue without any further delay. Government is confident that due to the excellent relations that exist between the Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, an amicable solution to the issue at hand will be mutually arrived at by the authorities of the two countries,” a government statement said.

A Lesotho delegation of then Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu and then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Machesetsa Mofomobe, was dispatched as emissaries to South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to discuss the fate of two Lesotho soldiers.

While the LDF said at the time that relations between the two countries and their defence forces remained cordial, it is necessary that both armies inform each other well in advance before crossing borders while on duty this while Moepi and Tšoeunyane were kept in police cells and later sent to a correctional facility.

The pair was in July that year then officially charged with illegal immigration, possession of unlicensed firearms, robbery with aggravating circumstances, and contravention of the Disaster Management Act that primarily restricts movement into South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, as well as stock theft.

They did not immediately have legal representation and had to rely on South African legal aid lawyers. In previous interviews the LDF told this publication that due to the hard lockdown that both South Africa and Lesotho were under, it was almost impossible to send local army lawyers to represent the two men. But attempts to send lawyers and a medical doctor to assess the situation of the soldiers when they were first arrested failed as they were denied entry into South Africa.

In another shocking revelation, Prime Minister Majoro’s delegation was also reportedly kept waiting for more than an hour despite properly following Covid-19 regulations when entering the republic.

The Lesotho soldiers were denied bail on several occasions and not even the sworn statements by the LDF and SANDF affidavits in support of the bail could convince the magistrate to decide otherwise.

The government later instructed a South African lawyer, Advocate Dumiza Ntsebeza, through the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa (PABASA), who launched a fresh bail application but was unsuccessful. Despite raising new points of law and facts, the court on December 3, 2020, dismissed the bail petition yet again. After 11 months, Privates Moepi and Tšoeunyane were welcomed by the Prime Minister and the army at its Mejametalana Airwing in June 2022.

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