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SHOULD LESOTHO MERGE WITH SOUTH AFRICA?

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A glance at a map spells out Lesotho's facts of life: small, landlocked and utterly at the mercy of its giant - and only - neighbor, South Africa.

What the map fails to show is the stubborn liberty this poor mountain kingdom has maintained for some 170 years against substantive foes - Zulus, Boers, Britons and South Africa's old apartheid regime.The question is: How much longer?

Lesotho - pronounced le-SOO-too - hopes a recent state visit by President Nelson Mandela was a turning point in relations with South Africa, marking an end to hostile apartheid-era meddling in the kingdom's affairs.

The visit sharpened debate over whether Lesotho should finally merge with South Africa - if not as a province, then in a federation safeguarding token independence within a European Union-style economic integration.

The now-ruling Basotho Congress Party is cool to the idea, and Mandela kept the opposition's demand for a commonwealth at arm's length. But the long-ruling Basotho National Party, now in opposition, thinks some form of federation is inevitable.

At a minimum, the opposition says, South Africa should drop passport requirements and scrap migrant worker quotas.

"We are aware that a Lesotho identity is important," said Retselisitsoe Sekhonyana, leader of the Basotho National Party. "But the Vatican is an independent state. Between the Vatican and Italy, you don't see different countries."

Lesotho has been proudly apart since King Moshoeshoe the Great led the Basotho people into the Drakensberg mountains in the 1820s to escape tribal fighting and starvation in southern Africa that killed an estimated 1 million people. Nearly everything here is named after the king, whose name is pronounced Mo-shway-shway.

The Basothos warded off Zulu empire-builders and resisted encroachment on their lands by white Boer settlers by negotiating a deal in 1869 that guaranteed Lesotho's borders while formally making it a British protectorate.

The deal proved fortuitous, for Britain constantly refused South Africa's demands to annex the Switzerland-size realm. Granted independence in 1966, Lesotho became a haven for South Africans fleeing apartheid oppression.

Independence and the harsh climate led to a distinctive culture notable in the sturdy Basotho moun-tain ponies, colorful blankets worn in summer and winter, and a deep-rooted attachment to monarchy that seldom survived colonialism in much of Africa.

Yet few countries in the world depend more on a single neighbor than Lesotho. One of the world's least developed countries, its 1.9 million people cannot sustain themselves herding sheep and cattle on their badly eroded soil.

The border post at Maseru teems from dawn till dusk with migrant workers who toil in South Africa's gold and diamond mines. Some come back crippled. Some return in coffins - roughly half the 104 miners killed in the Vaal Reefs gold mine disaster this year were Basothos.

The $500 million that the workers send home each year accounts for nearly half of Lesotho's gross national product. Layoffs in South Africa's mining industry and debate among members of Mandela's African National Congress on restricting the number of foreign miners caused severe jitters in Lesotho.

"There is already an interdependency between Lesotho and South Africa, and it will only grow," said Leteba Leteba, leader of a dance troupe that performed for Mandela. "I don't believe they will be too harsh with us."

He then paused and cited an old adage: "When South Africa sneezes, Lesotho catches a cold."

In the old days of apartheid, the colds were particularly vicious. The most spectacular came Jan. 1, 1986, when the South African army blockaded the border, cutting off Lesotho's supply of food and fuel.

The blockade was aimed at punishing longtime dictator Chief Leabua Jonathan for his refusal to sign a nonaggression treaty. He was toppled three weeks later in a military coup.

Though Mandela was hailed by tens of thousands of people during his visit as a liberator, South Africa still pulls Lesotho's strings.

South Africa is building a multibillion-dollar pipeline in the Lesotho highlands that will send water - one of Lesotho's only abundant resources - to drought-threatened Johannesburg.

The current government in Maseru owes its existence to Mandela. He led regional mediation last year to put down a palace coup against Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle's government and to restore King Moshoeshoe II.

Moshoeshoe has been on and off the throne three times in continuous political turbulence since Lesotho won independence. Mokhehle, exiled after Jonathan's 1970 coup that toppled Moshoeshoe the first time, won the country's first democratic elections since then - in 1993.

During his visit, Mandela warned Lesotho's army and police, still tensely divided into pro- and anti-Mokhehle factions, that South Africa would act as "guarantor" of Lesotho's democracy.

He also twisted Mokhehle's arm to hasten a dialogue between the ruling Basotho Congress Party, which won all 65 National Assembly seats in the 1993 election, and the now-voiceless opposition groups.