The government was forced into damage control mode yesterday as outrage mounted over its apparent intention to deny the Dalai Lama a visa for the third time in five years to avoid upsetting China.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, the FW de Klerk Foundation and opposition political parties had piled on the pressure to ensure that, this time round, the Tibetan spiritual leader and long a thorn in Beijing’s side, would be able to visit South Africa. It then emerged that he had withdrawn his application.
He had been invited to next month’s World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Cape Town.
After reports that the Nobel laureate would be denied a visa, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation said his application had not been rejected and that it would receive a fair assessment. The department later said it had received “written confirmation” from the Dalai Lama that he had cancelled his planned visit.
But his representative in Pretoria, Nangsa Choedon, told John Maytham on Cape Talk radio yesterday that she was called by a “Dirco officer” who said the government could not grant him a visa. “The main reason they said is [that it is] in the national interest that they cannot grant a visa to his holiness because that would disturb relations between China and South Africa,” said Choedon.
International Relations and Cooperation spokesman Clayson Monyela yesterday denied that the Dalai Lama had been advised against travelling to South Africa. “I am not going to answer what the other people are saying … that’s my statement,” said Monyela.
Coincidentally, the drama unfolded as International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane undertook an official trip to China.
The Dalai Lama has twice previously failed to secure a visa to visit South Africa.
In 2009, the Tibetan leader planned to attend a peace conference in Johannesburg and in 2011, he was invited to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s birthday celebrations.
After the second debacle, Tutu said: ”We will pray, as we prayed for the downfall of [the] apartheid government, we will pray for [the] downfall of a government that misrepresents us.”
Tutu was said to be out of the country yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
The Cape Town summit is expected to be attended by 1500 guests, including fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
The City of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Desmond and Leah Tutu, and Chief Albert Luthuli foundations are the hosts. The foundations initially said they would appeal directly to President Jacob Zuma to ensure the Dalai Lama was granted a visa.
Last month, the city approved a R10-million budget for the summit.
FW de Klerk Foundation executive director Dave Steward said: ”We are making this point as strongly as we can that [other] Nobel laureates should not boycott the summit because of this.”
China is South Africa’s biggest bilateral trading partner, having overtaken the US four years ago. According to official data, South Africa imported R154-billion worth of goods from China last year, and exports were worth R116-billion.
According to the Central Tibetan Administration, the country was invaded by China in 1949. The Dalai Lama entered into peace talks with Chinese leaders but was forced into exile and has been living in Dharamsala, India. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Ross Anthony, acting head of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University said: “China has not officially made any protest about the visit and yet many in South Africa naturally assume that the Chinese government has, behind the scenes, been pressuring the South African government. This just goes to show how badly this influences the Chinese presence in South Africa – even when they don’t lift a finger, the media immediately pounces on them as responsible.”
The DA condemned South Africa’s poor treatment of the Dalai Lama. ”The Dalai Lama does not deserve to be treated like a persona non grata, especially when he poses no credible threat to South Africa,” said DA international relations spokesman Stevens Mokgalapa.
Political analyst Mcebisi Ndletyana said SA was a “timid” trading partner that sometimes kowtowed to China to protect trade relations.
”It would seem like South Africa is a bit cautious or rather a timid partner in all this. They don’t want to upset the Chinese. The Indians seem to be very assertive about their own choices [in their dealings with China], they won’t be dictated to … we have to make our choices ourselves,” he said.
”The reason we have not given [him] a visa is because he is not a good friend of China; it’s a bit unfortunate,” he said.