Maseru — whose name is a Sesotho word meaning “place of the sandstone” — is the capital city of Lesotho and also the capital of the Maseru District. It is situated on the Caledon River, which separates Lesotho from South Africa, and is Lesotho’s only sizeable city, with a population of approximately 227,880 (according to a 2006 census).
At the end of the Free State-Basotho Wars in 1869, Maseru was established as a small police camp by the British when Basutoland became a British protectorate. It was not long before it grew into a busy market town.
It is located at the edge of the “conquered territories” relinquished to the Orange Free State (now the Free State province of South Africa) as part of the peace terms at the conclusion of the war. It is 24 kilometres (15 mi) west of King Moshoeshoe I’s stronghold, Thaba Bosiu, the previous de facto capital. Maseru was the state’s administrative capital between 1869 and 1871, before administration of Basutoland was transferred to the Cape Colony.
Between 1871 and 1884, and much to the chagrin of the Basotho people, Basutoland was treated in the same way as territories that had been forcefully annexed. This led to the Gun War in 1881 during which many buildings in Maseru were burned. In 1884, Basutoland’s status as a Crown Colony was restored, and Maseru was again made the capital.
When Basutoland gained its independence and became the Kingdom of Lesotho in 1966, Maseru remained the country’s capital. Prior to Lesotho’s independence, Maseru had remained relatively small; it was contained within well-defined colonial boundaries and, as the British had little interest in developing the city, there was little growth.
After 1966 Maseru expanded rapidly from a mere 20 square kilometres (7.7 sq mi) to the current area of 138 square kilometres (53 sq mi), mainly thanks to the incorporation of nearby peri-urban villages to the city proper. The annual population growth rate remained around 7% for several decades, before tapering off to around 3.5% between 1986 and 1996.
Suspicions of widespread vote-rigging during Lesotho’s 1998 parliamentary elections led to military intervention by South Africa, and much of the city was damaged by riots and pillaging. The cost of repairing the damage was estimated at around two billion rand (350 million $US), and a decade later the effects of the riots could still be seen within the city.
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