South Africa did not issue a visa to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, because it did not want to remove the world’s attention from the 2010 Soccer World Cup preparations, a spokesperson for the president said on Monday.
The Dalai Lama had been invited to a 2010 World Cup peace conference to be held in Johannesburg this week by three South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
The event would be used to discuss ways of using football to fight racism and xenophobia ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
”The South African government does not have a problem with the Dalai Lama,” said President Kgalema Motlanthe’s spokesperson Thabo Masebe.
”But at this time the whole world will be focused on the country as hosts of the 2010 World Cup. We want the focus to remain on South Africa.
”A visit now by the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet.”
Masebe said China, a major trading partner of South Africa, had played no role in the government’s decision.
”The decision was made by the government and not by the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
”This issue is that this simply would not be in the best interests of South Africa at this stage.”
When asked to comment on how the refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama had been widely reported by the world’s media on Monday morning, Masebe said the government believed the issue would ”go away”.
”It will go away. We can’t avoid it now,” he said.
”If we had been approached we would have advised the organisers on the matter. But we only learned about this when the announcement was made public.”
Masebe said Motlanthe had received a letter from Tutu requesting an explanation on the government’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.
”Yes, the president received the letter. The position we took is that inviting the Dalai Lama at this stage would not be in the interests of South Africa.”
De Klerk and Tutu had both said that they would reconsider attending the peace conference in protest against the government’s decision.
”Mr De Klerk has been in touch with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Presidency to express his concern about the issue, but so far he has received no reaction,” his spokesperson Dave Steward said.
The Dalai Lama was due to speak at the conference, where the line-up included the Nobel Peace Prize committee from Norway and actors Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman.
”Mr De Klerk identifies with the position of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and will reconsider his participation in the World Cup event should the South African government go ahead with a decision not to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama,” Steward said.
A ministerial counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Pretoria was reported to have said that his government had appealed to the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into the country, warning that if it did so, it would harm bilateral relations.
South Africa is one of China’s key trade partners in Africa, accounting for about 20,8% of China’s trade with the continent.
A spokesperson for the Dalai Lama said he was ”very disappointed” by the decision.
”It is true that South Africa, under intense pressure from the Chinese authorities, have denied a visa to the Dalai Lama,” said spokesperson Thubten Samphel.
Opposition parties expressed disappointment at the decision.
Democratic Alliance foreign affairs spokesperson Tony Leon said the decision, reportedly taken at the behest of the Chinese government, ”flies in the face of all logic”.
Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille accused the government of hypocrisy.
”We in the Independent Democrats believe that by giving in to China or any other country’s demands, the government is saying to the world that we do not afford other peoples the same rights we are afforded in our own Constitution,” read a statement from her office.
The Dalai Lama had visited South Africa twice before. In 1999 he took part in the World Parliament of Religions and met then president Thabo Mbeki.
However, a row broke out after Mbeki agreed to see the Dalai Lama again separately. The Chinese government protested and Mbeki cancelled the meeting.
In 2004 the Dalai Lama again visited South Africa as a guest of the African Cultural Heritage Trust. — Sapa