The situation has deteriorated to the point where one senior government official in Maseru said it has transformed the landlocked nation into "the Gaza of Africa" - equating it to a blockade by South Africa.
Last weekend HUMNEWS visited the main crossing between the two countries at the Maseru Bridge. Pedestrians and car drivers alike were reporting waits of up to 90 minutes Friday. However diplomats and expatriate business people say they have also experienced waits up to four hours to make a crossing that used to take just 5 minutes.
The costly bottleneck started in the run-up to the World Cup in June, when South Africa unilaterally slapped new conditions on Lesotho nationals. The change - reportedly demanded by FIFA amid reports of criminality originating from Lesotho - meant that passports needed to be produced for entry into South Africa instead of just six-month certificates that did not require time-consuming id scans.
During Friday's inspection, HUMNEWS calculated at least a one to two minute processing times per traveller. To make matters worse, the South Africans have only one pedestrian checkpoint in each direction and few vehicle booths.
For the expatriate community and for business people crossing back and forth on day trips, the delays translate into huge delays - and costs. One hotel manager who lives in Ladybrand - a popular border town on the South African side of the border - complained it has turned a commute that had taken just 30 minutes into a multi hour headache.
People had hoped that the misery would be alleviated when South African President Jacob Zuma visited Lesotho last month on an official state visit. But according to published reports the issue was hardly raised, if at all. The Government of Lesotho has little leverage on its larger, wealthier neighbour as it relies on the latter for most of its food supply.
It’s not only ordinary people and commuters being inconvenienced. Trucks laden with crucial imports are also stuck in long lines. On Friday the only vehicles that moved quickly were in a heavily guarded armoured vehicle convey carrying diamonds - a crucial export from Lesotho.
The border changes couldn't come at a worse time for Lesotho, one of the poorest nations in the world. The country of 2-million is struggling to deal with the impact of the global economy crisis - which has slowed the flow of foreign remittances and triggered at least 10,000 layoffs in the garment industry. One of Lesotho's main streams of income - revenue from the South African Customs Union - has been dropping, from 35% of GDP in 2009/10 to a meager 14% in 2010/11, according to the World Bank. Since 1990, an estimated 65,000 mining jobs based in South Africa have been lost.
The new controls are also hurting border businesses on the South African side. Lesotho national and expatriates who used to cross on weekend are cutting down on spontaneous cross-border shopping trips.
Diplomats have expressed concern about serious medical cases being tied up at the border due to the new controls. And business owners worry about the knock-on effect it will have on Lesotho's small but important tourism and convention business. There are frequent and convenient daily flights between Maseru and Johannesburg - operated and controlled by South African Airways - but flights tend to be expensive and fill-up quickly.
Expatriate workers say if the border chaos continues for much longer, it could make it harder to attract aid workers and consultants to the small nation. "Being able to crossing on a moment's notice into South Africa on weekends - even if just to walk our dogs - is one of the biggest benefits of working here," said one.
Part of the government's new economic policy is to transform Maseru into a dynamic economic node, integrated with the southern African regional economy. It also wants to link Lesotho small agribusiness into the high end of the South African value chain. But these goals now seem more distant than even with the ongoing border squeeze.
---- Reporting by HUMNEWS in Maseru, Lesotho.