South Africa is to help Lesotho discard its status as one of the world's least developed countries within five years, leaders of the two governments said on Thursday.
The realisation of this undertaking would favour South Africa as much as its small neighbour, President Thabo Mbeki told a media conference after a full day of talks with senior Lesotho government officials in Maseru.
"Clearly the socio-economic development of Lesotho is also the development of South Africa," Mbeki said.
The president stressed that this ambitious endeavour would require a lot of work, "but I am quite sure we will make progress on this in a very practical way."
Helping Lesotho move up on the developmental scale would be one of the main tasks of a bilateral commission set up between the two countries during Mbeki's official visit on Thursday, Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili said.
"We are now looking forward to our technocrats and ministers (on the commission) making today meaningful and significant for the people in our villages and in our streets," Mosisili told reporters.
Mbeki was briefed on progress in bringing about general elections in Lesotho by senior officials of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Interim Political Authority (IPA).
The IPA was set up after Lesotho's failed 1998 elections to ensure that a new poll be held as soon as possible.
"We are encouraged by progress made in Lesotho to overcome the problems of 1998," Mbeki said, adding that South Africa would do whatever it could to aid the process.
Asked about allegations that South Africa was not doing enough to help ensure a speedy poll, the president said it was the task of the Southern African Development Community and not of any individual country.
South Africa is a guarantor of the 1998 agreement between the Lesotho government and the IPA.
Mbeki said it was clear both parties were committed to ironing out their differences and congratulated Lesotho's political leaders for the work they had done.
"I have no doubt an election date will be announced, I just don't know when."
The results of the country's May 1998 poll were scrapped after allegations by opposition parties that the vote was rigged.
The elections were then rescheduled for May last year, but were never realised.
The IEC recently announced that voter registration is to take place from August 13 to September 9.
Questioned about perceptions of strained relations between the two countries following South Africa's military intervention in the kingdom in late 1998, Mosisili said it was not the case. He stressed that the soldiers were sent into the country at Lesotho's request.
"I think it should be clear once and for all that this was no invasion as has been suggested," he said.
"The stability we enjoy today is a direct result of that intervention."
"We must honour them by making sure that conflicts of that nature don't occur again."
SADC troops from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe entered Lesotho to crush a violent political upheaval a few months after the election results were scrapped.
Mbeki and Mosisili also signed an extradition treaty on Thursday as well as an agreement on mutual legal assistance.
The second document will enable officials from both countries to establish preliminary cases against suspects from across the border to ensure extradition.
The two agreements should send a message to a particular group of people N "the crooks" N Mbeki said.
The two leaders also signed an agreement for the creation of a bilateral commission, which is to be run at ministerial level.
The strategic areas for interaction would be stability, security and economic and social development, according to a joint communique signed by Mbeki and Mosisili.
The prime minister stressed the historic ties between the two countries, saying it made good sense for them to map out a common future beneficial to both populations.
He added that Thursday's talks were not conducted in a "master and servant" fashion.
"Regarding speculation in certain sections that I was going to be handing the kingdom over to South Africa today, President Mbeki quite clearly said: 'no thanks'," Mosisili said.
Mbeki said while it may have been the intention of the apartheid government to make Lesotho another South African province, attempts by the current government were aimed at assisting its neighbour develop to its full potential.
Mbeki was accompanied by Acting Foreign Affairs Minister Steve Tshwete, Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Justice Minister Penuell Maduna and Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Lindiwe Hendricks.
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