Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Wednesday accused South Africa of obliging China in an explosive row over a visa for the Dalai Lama, accusing Pretoria of putting trade ties above democratic values.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe tried to tamp down the dispute, telling the Star newspaper that South Africa was ready to grant the Dalai Lama a visa when the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader decided to cancel the trip.
“Of course, he has been here before, I don’t see why it should be an issue at all,” Motlanthe said.
Tutu has bashed the government’s handling of the visa request, calling President Jacob Zuma’s administration “worse than the apartheid government”.
In an interview with AFP on Wednesday, Tutu dismissed Motlanthe’s explanation and said the government was caving in to China.
“The deputy president says ‘No, this thing was in the pipeline’. In the pipeline? It’s not weeks before he should have left, it’s hours, and why have [they] kept it all so much in abeyance and making everybody uncertain? Why?” Tutu said.
“His explanation just leaves you even more upset instead of making things better. Because you see they could have told us or told the Dalai Lama a heck of a long time earlier ‘you are getting the visa or you are not getting the visa’.”
“Here we are kowtowing … it’s a despicable way,” Tutu said.
“It doesn’t do much to improve their relationship with China because China needs much of what we have, I mean minerals and so on, and they would continue” to trade with South Africa, Tutu added.
“It’s just unconscionable that we who suffered under an oppressive regime, should be doing the kind of things that really are done by oppressive governments.”
South Africa has repeatedly denied any influence by China over the visa, and said the Dalai Lama was late handing in his application.
“We are not bullied, we are not pressured, we are not influenced by anybody in making decisions,” International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela said.
The Dalai Lama’s spokesperson Tenzin Taklha said his office had begun the visa process in June, and that on Tuesday the South African embassy in India was not returning their calls.
“His Holiness was scheduled to leave today. It became impossible. He felt it was too much of an inconvenience. His Holiness’s policy is not to cause inconvenience to his hosts,” he said.
‘Cowardice and deceit’
Tutu turns 80 on Friday and had invited his longtime friend and fellow Nobel Peace laureate the Dalai Lama to give an inaugural lecture at his Peace Centre.
As a luminary of the anti-apartheid movement, Tutu is widely regarded as the voice of the national conscience. His condemnation of the government reverberated with other key figures in the struggle for democracy.
“Today all freedom-loving South Africans bow their heads in shame at the brazen insult thrown at two Nobel Peace Prize laureates,” said Ahmed Kathrada and Barbara Hogan, both political prisoners during apartheid.
“We are further deeply embarrassed and angered by the inept and unprincipled attempts to justify the delay in granting a visa on bureaucratic grounds. This hints at cowardice and deceit of the worst kind,” they said.
About 500 people marched through the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the Dalai Lama would have given a lecture next week, in protest at the visa debacle. — AFP