By Andrew England in Johannesburg
The Dalai Lama has cancelled a trip to South Africa after he was not granted a visa in time, an issue activists have blamed on Pretoria’s reluctance to upset China.
The Tibetan spiritual leader had been invited to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations on October 7 and deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture the following day. But his office said in a statement on Tuesday that it was “convinced that for whatever reason or reasons, the South African government finds it inconvenient to issue a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama”.
The saga has attracted a storm of criticism against President Jacob Zuma’s government amid questions about how its relations with China, South Africa’s largest trade partner, are affecting policy issues.
The controversy over the Dalai Lama’s visit is particularly sensitive for many South Africans because of the country’s history of struggle against apartheid and fight for democracy.
Archbishop Tutu is one of the nation’s best loved and most respected figures. In a statement last week he was quoted as saying the manner in which the visa was dealt with was reminiscent of the way authorities dealt with travel applications for black South Africans during apartheid.
“I really think this is such a sad turn of events … it will go down as one of those incidents in history that we will be all ashamed of,” said Nomfundo Walaza, chief executive of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre. “For our government not to even give his Holiness the Dalai Lama a response is shocking.”
The Dalai Lama was forced to call off a trip to South Africa in 2009 for similar visa problems.
Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, said the Dalai Lama’s application was still under consideration and had not been refused. He rebutted the allegations that Pretoria had bowed to pressure from Beijing.
“It’s absolutely not true. South Africa is a sovereign country and we make our own decisions,” he said.
In 2009, China surged past Germany, the US, the UK and Japan to become South Africa’s biggest trading partner as it looks to Africa to meet its thirst for minerals.
South Africa was also invited into the Bric group of nations earlier this year, in spite of the mismatch between its economic and demographic size and those of China, Brazil, Indian and Russia. The move was seen as a diplomatic success for Mr Zuma and reinforced the perception of South Africa as a political and economic heavyweight on the continent.
As the storm over the Dalai Lama’s visit was gathering pace, Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa’s deputy president, was visiting Beijing last week and overseeing the signing of agreements that should see China invest $2.5bn in projects in his country.
“If it’s not China … they have to give us an answer – they owe it to this country to say we haven’t allowed this man (in) because of X,Y and Z,” Ms Walaza said. “I know what they are going to do, they are going to turn around and say the Dalai Lama cancelled the trip so they didn’t have to. I think they were probably strategically waiting for this moment.”