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Guns, drums and accordions

For nearly 20 years, a tiny Lesotho village has been at the epicentre of a deadly turf war among music gangs. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya explains how these killings have even spread across borders and threaten the education and health of those caught in the deadly crossfire.

In what darkly resembles the bloody gangster rap blood fest in the United States of America during the 1990s a tiny Lesotho village is a hotbed of bloodletting and strife that has even spilled over the Kingdom’s borders.

Instead of gangster rap, Ribaneng, a composite of smaller villages of under 8000 people on the highlands of Lesotho, is known for producing some of Lesotho’s finest exponents of local indigenous music, Famo*. It is also becoming increasingly notorious for the violent gangs formed around the rivalry between the music stars, their supporters and hangers-on.

According to a report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) in Lesotho and the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI), “Report on Ribaneng Peace Building and Social Cohesion Project”, the rivalry between the musicians and associated gangs has caused “brutal death inside the country resulting in the displacement and death to many people”.

“The conflict has spilt over into neighbouring South Africa, especially the mining towns in the Free State and more recently into the Johannesburg gold reef where illegal miners from the southern districts of Lesotho go to try and eke out a living”.

In another case linked to these turf wars, the North West High Court (in South Africa),  jailed two Basotho men in April last year, Lebohang Montshi and Motlhafotha Selimo, to an effective 25 years imprisonment after they were convicted of killing Ernest “Katiba” Moletsane. Moletsane was murdered whilst he claimed to work at a Rustenburg mine. Two other men were shot and wounded in the incident.

According to Lesotho’s Sunday Express newspaper the groupings (known as Makhotla) that developed into gangs were formed in the early 2000s, with much nobler intentions, to support fellow musicians in times of bereavement or illness. Makhotla said that many seem to be caught in a cyclical conflict, with each attack, allegedly out of revenge for a previous one by the rival.

The conflict is understood to have started around 2009. It is not clear why it started. By 2010 over 30 people had died as a direct result of the music gangs' strife.

At the 2010 trial of two men accused (and later convicted) of plotting murder, it was heard that they operated from a hit list which included rival musicians and a radio personality – thought to be promoting their adversaries’ music – before they could be initiated into one of the gangs.

So fierce is the rivalry between the two main gangs, Terene led by Mokete “Mosotho” Chakela and Seakhi headed by Bereng “Lekase” Majoro, that the two countries governments have in the past tried to broker peace between the groups.

The report links the gang wars to attempts to crack the lucrative music industry in South Africa, the taxi industry and the criminal underworld.

It adds: “Famo music, full of provocative lyrics and open insults by one group to another is a blanket cover and vehicle in which all social ills are conducted through”.

“There has been a strong association made between the violence to the violent underworld of the Famo music industry and its associated socio-political gangsterism”.

The CCJP and DHPI report goes on to say that “many children in Ribaneng have abandoned schools as a result of fear and their endangered lives while travelling or walking to school. Schools in the area are hard hit as teachers have left to work in safer schools outside the area.

“The health centres in this area have seen many patients on chronic medication and treatment default because they are often not able to gain access to medical facilities that are located in rival gang areas.”

Although the violence almost exclusively involves men, “women tend to also support the violence, they are also onlookers, perhaps because they are incapacitated to intervene”.

The justice system is seen by many as an ineffective way to address the conflict.

The police, the church, traditional leaders and councillors are generally viewed as the peacemakers in that they attempt to get the conflicting parties to resolve their issues. The police, however, also support the violence in some areas.

The report concludes that the church and traditional leaders are key and help in bringing about lasting peace in Ribaneng.

“The possibilities of leveraging on church, traditional leaders, health and education institutions as peace builders should be considered, since these institutions appear to be highly regarded as effective in this role by community members,” says the report.

*Wikipedia describes Famo as a type of music from Lesotho consisting of singing accompanied by the accordion, a drum and occasionally a bass. It originated in the drinking dens of migrant workers from Lesotho trying to relax after working in the mines in the 1920s but is now a popular form of music for Sesotho speakers”. 

Image: Montage by Ricardo da Silva SJ using Pixabay stock.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.