Vehicles crossing the Lesotho and South Africa border at the Maseru bridge border post in Maseru, Lesotho, are mostly labourers trying to migrate to a better life. Image Credit: AFP

MASERU, Lesotho: In a cottage in rural Lesotho, Tisetso Litheko lays out six full passports packed with immigration stamps showing his constant movement across the border to neighbouring South Africa.

The 31-year-old former shepherd is one of more than 400,000 Lesotho nationals who live for much of the year in South Africa, forced by decades of a lack of work in the small mountain kingdom to seek a livelihood elsewhere.

“Moving to South Africa was something I could not avoid. I had very few options here in Lesotho,” Litheko told AFP.

The flood of migrants from Lesotho — a country the size of Belgium that is encircled by South Africa — goes back to the discovery of gold in Johannesburg in the 1880s, when thousands of men from Lesotho were recruited to work in mines.

Litheko says his father and grandfather spent most of their lives as mineworkers in Johannesburg, the first in a long line of male members of the family who were forced to migrate for work.

“In Lesotho there are no jobs, there is no money, that is why many people sacrifice the comfort of their home life to work in South Africa,” he said.

Litheko left his village, Ha Abia, when he was 22 years old, initially sneaking illegally across the border to toil on farms in nearby Ladybrand as a seasonal worker.

“Before I had a passport, I used to go over the mountains before sunrise to avoid being detected, and come back at night.”

Now employed as a mine security guard, Litheko often works 24-hour shifts patrolling the boundaries of a gold mine in Carletonville, a gritty mining district south west of Johannesburg.

He saves the bulk of his weekly 550 rand (Dh150) wage and sends it home at the end of each month to his wife and three children.

The sum may appear meagre, but it goes a long way in a country where 56.2 per cent of the two-million population lives in extreme poverty.

The World Bank puts Lesotho jobless rate between 24 and 28 per cent.

The red tape of South Africa’s immigration system, where officials frequently have a reputation for demanding bribes and causing long delays, has exposed desperate Lesotho job seekers to exploitation and cheap labour.

“Getting a South African permit is harder than getting a job,” said Litheko.

Lesotho is enclosed by South Africa, and thousands of its citizens cross the border daily, not just to work but also to shop or attend school.

The government is the largest employer, after the textile industry, which benefits from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that allows Lesotho to exports goods to the US duty free.

Even if that has provided some relief, it has failed to significantly dent the high unemployment rate.

In the capital Maseru, stalls selling a wide mix of goods and services clog pavements, creating a vibrant informal sector.

Because the local loti currency is pegged to the South Africa rand, Litheko points out that migrant workers do not benefit from fluctuations in the exchange rate.

“Despite earning rand, at the end of the day, I am no different from someone who is working in Lesotho,” he said.

The African Centre for Migration and Society, based at Johannesburg’s Wits University, said statistics show that remittances — transfers of money by migrants to their home country — make up to 30 per cent of Lesotho’s economy.

“Lesotho with its weak GDP remains dependent on South Africa through remittances — and an economy that relies largely on remittances is … politically and economically weak as a result,” said researcher Zaheera Jinnah.

With long queues of goods trucks waiting to be cleared, the two 24-hour border posts bear witness to the hectic to-and-fro between South Africa and Lesotho.

“The operation of the border has made travel easy, but you still have to get your passport stamped,” said Litheko. calling for passport controls between the two countries to be scrapped.

Faced with the flow of immigrants, South Africa in February 2016 launched a special documentation process.

The programme, which came to an end at the end of 2016, attracted more than 127,000 applicants, with the permits valid until end of 2019.