Anger as Dalai Lama cancels trip to SA
South Africa’s foreign policy came under fire on Tuesday after the Dalai Lama cancelled a trip to South Africa because he was not granted a visa in time.
The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre said the decision, after a fruitless five-week wait for a visa to attend the archbishop emeritus’ 80th birthday this week, marked a sad day.
Earlier in the day, the Dalai Lama said in a statement in India he had wanted to spare the South African government any further inconvenience, but was sorry to disappoint his followers.
“His Holiness has thus decided to call off his upcoming visit to South Africa, and he regrets the inconvenience caused to his hosts and the large number of the South African public who are keenly waiting to receive him and hear his message.”
It is widely believed the government had buckled under pressure from China—its biggest trading partner—which deems the Tibetan spiritual leader a “splittist” and discourages foreign leaders from hosting him.
Civil society coalition “Let Him in Now!” said although the visit was cancelled, the issues it had raised should not be forgotten.
“The Dalai Lama’s humble decision should not in any manner remove the focus on the unaccountable, secretive and disrespectful way in which the South African government has dealt with this matter.
“This matter once again highlights that SA’s foreign policy is misaligned with our Constitution and the values contained in it.”
The Dalai Lama visited South Africa in 1996, 1999 and 2004 and was received by former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
In 2009, he was refused entry by the Zuma administration—a decision Tutu termed “disgraceful”.
Political analyst Steven Friedman said the shift in foreign policy was likely, and wrongly, influenced by South Africa’s recent inclusion in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China and South Africa) bloc of emerging economic powers.
“The reality is that now the primary economic relationship we have in the world is the Brics relationship and this leads to decisions like this,” Friedman said.
“But the idea, quite frankly, that international trading relations would be made or broken by receiving the Dalai Lama shows a total misunderstanding of the way the world works.”
He said United States President Barack Obama probably held no such illusions when he received the Dalai Lama at the White House in July.
“China invests in Africa because it has important economic and strategic relationships here.
Our relationship does not hinge on whether we grant entrance to the Dalai Lama or not,” said Friedman.
“South Africans should be really worried that they have people in positions of authority who think it is the way it works.”
Government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi declined to comment.
The Dalai Lama had planned to spend eight days in South Africa. He was due to deliver an inaugural peace lecture at the University of the Western Cape as part of Tutu’s birthday celebrations. He was also invited to speak at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Wits vice chancellor and principal Loyiso Nongxa said the “state’s deliberate indecision ridicules the values pertaining to freedom of speech, expression and movement enshrined in our Constitution, and the freedoms for which so many South African have lived, and indeed died”.
The Democratic Alliance said it would submit parliamentary questions asking International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to explain the government’s handling of the matter.
“The inescapable conclusion is that the South African government has predictably strung the Dalai Lama along to make it impossible for him to plan his trip,” spokesperson Stevens Mokgalapa said.
“But by delaying the decision on the Dalai Lama’s visa, the government made its choice. It allowed China to dictate its foreign policy.”
Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said it “was another blight on our reputation that the South African government gave in to pressure”.
Businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele said both Tutu and the Dalai Lama had been unfairly treated.
“Isn’t it ironic that when he’s celebrating his 80th birthday, the most fundamental right, the right to association, is being taken away from him?” Ramphele said.
ANC ally the Congress of South African Trade Unions stood with government’s critics on the issue. It warned it was against the will of South Africans to let China dictate policy and to trade “our morality for dollars or yuan”.—Sapa