An Architect in Apartheid era Lesotho – Interviewing my Grandfather

When my mother was a child, her parents, in a move reminiscent of the stories of Gerald Durrell, relocated the family from Toronto Canada to Roma, Lesotho. My Grandfather, Herbert Atkins, is an architect, and was at the time working for the National University of Lesotho, or NUL for short. His experience as an architect working for an aid agency overseas serves as a reminder of the competing interests of politics and charities.


Firstly, some context on Lesotho. Except for the Vatican City, Lesotho is the only country totally surrounded by another – South Africa. One third of the country is flat, the rest mountainous, much of it over 2000 metres. Consequently, the winters are very harsh. All too often in winter the villages are snowbound for weeks on end when food has to be air-dropped. Indeed, Lesotho has the highest lowest point of any country on earth, at 1,400 metres above sea level. As an environment, it is the polar opposite to what one would expect of Africa.

“Lesotho gained its independence in 1964,” says Herbert, “I went in 1977, at the height of ‘apartheid’ in South Africa. Lesotho, being a native country, was opposed to the South African regime, nevertheless, it had to tread warily, given South Africa’s stranglehold on the country. Bear in mind, that everything – had and still has – to be imported through South Africa. At the time, the free movement of people over the border was strictly controlled by the South African border post police. Politically, suspect travellers were impeded from entering Lesotho or leaving it.”

“Why did I go to Lesotho? The honest answer is a job; with a wife and two small children that is important. At the time – 1977 – we were in Toronto, Canada. The firm that employed me were mainly landscape architects. The Canadian job scene is one of hire and fire. Hire when they have work and fire when they have none. The firm had prepared a landscape plan for a university in – Saudi Arabia – and they expected to get the design work for the same university. They did not get the job, consequently, they shed staff dramatically. At the time I was told about a job in Lesotho that was funded by Canadian International Development Agency CIDA. The purpose of the Job was to support the National University of Lesotho, this project was in line with Canada’s anti-apartheid policy.

The National University of Lesotho is an off-shoot of a pre-existing University that had served the recently independent states from Britain of: Botswanaland, Basotholand and Swaziland (today Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland). Most of the development had taken place in Roma – Lesotho, building on a previously existing Catholic Church University College in (Roma – Lesotho) prior to independence.

The arrangement to run a University in three separate campuses in countries with different needs and economic circumstances was both questionable and cumbersome. The outcome was a split that resulted in each country having its own separate University.

Canada and several other countries and organizations: UK, Sweden, Holland, Denmark and UN pursued a policy of supporting NUL on condition that they took in refugee students from South Africa and other parts of the continent. Bear in mind, that these were the days of apartheid in South Africa. The support had the purpose of repudiating apartheid as much as supporting Lesotho. It is interesting to note in this regard, the role played by international politics in aid.

The remit of my job at NUL was to ensure that the funds provided by Canada were spent as agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding between Lesotho and Canada; Canada provided two administrative University positions: that of bursar and that of physical planner, as well as several teaching positions. As Physical Planner, I was to oversee building projects under construction, these included: a Library, Hostels, a teaching facility and staff housing, which I designed – both in Roma and in Maseru (The capital of Lesotho).  Furthermore, I was to prepare a master plan for the future development of the University and write submissions addressed to likely donors for further funding. Other countries also provided University teaching staff.

The precarious position of Lesotho – at the time, a virtual hostage to the apartheid regime in South Africa – was exploited by Lesotho to the full. When the apartheid government in South Africa finally gave way to a nationally elected government most of the overseas funding to NUL ceased. The reason being that in the view of the donors other African countries were more deserving of assistance than Lesotho, for instance, the Congo, Rwanda, etc. which were experiencing civil conflicts. This was a serious blow to Lesotho.

It is worth recording in the context of foreign aid to developing countries that most of it goes towards erecting structures but little thought is given to recurrent costs that stay with country receiving the aid. That is why so often buildings are left to deteriorate as the country receiving the aid cannot pay for the up-keep of what has been provided. Recurrent costs are also harder to verify. Another factor worth mentioning is that a donated building is attractive to the politicians of the donor country as they can show something for their efforts, whereas a recurrent cost, is difficult to show in a photograph and so gain political capital with voters from it.”


My Grandparents spent the rest of their lives in Africa, eventually moving to Johannesburg where they live to this day.

1 Comment

  1. Great article! My father was the academic planner and shared the same office with your grandfather at NUL. I used to play soccer with your uncle in Maseru as well.

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