The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, has announced that he will not be visiting South Africa for a planned trip from the 6th to the 14th of October. He made the decision after a fruitless five-week-long wait for a visa to enter the country, the South African government effectively refusing to issue him with official travel documents.
The Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, said that he abandoned his plans because he didn’t want to “create any inconveniences to anyone, individuals or governments.” The South African authorities are yet to furnish reasons for failing to give him a visa. He was to attend the 80th birthday celebrations of former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and was invited to deliver a lecture in honor of the staunch anti-Apartheid campaigner and Nobel Peace laureate in Cape Town.
Tutu had earlier expressed his sadness over the situation, saying “I think my birthday gift is going to be: no Dalai Lama.” After the Dalai Lama’s decision to cancel his trip, Tutu’s disappointment turned into anger. In a scathing and unprecedented verbal attack on the South African government that was broadcast on national television on Tuesday, he exclaimed that:
“Our government is worse than the Apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it from the Apartheid government. […] Hey Mr Zuma [South Africa’s president], you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests. I’m warning you out of love. I am warning you like I warned the nationalists [the Apartheid government] that one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC [the ruling part] government. You are disgraceful.”
There has been widespread outrage at the authorities’ decision not to issue the Dalai Lama with a visa in good time. Many critics believe that the government’s action was prompted by diplomatic pressure from China, South Africa’s biggest trading partner and a country that deems the Dalai Lama to be a “splittist” because of his efforts to win Tibet’s independence from China. The Chinese government is well-known for discouraging foreign leaders from hosting him. The Dalai Lama visited South Africa on three separate occasions between 1996 and 2004, but was refused entry in 2009 when he was to attend a conference of fellow Nobel Prize winners.
At a candlelight vigil held outside Parliament in Cape Town on Monday, Tony Ehrenreich, the provincial leader of South Africa’s largest trade union confederation, Cosatu, commented that “we should no exchange our morality for dollars or yuan. […] It’s inappropriate and discriminatory that the Dalai Lama should be denied access.” At the same event, prominent business woman and former head of the World Bank, Mamphela Ramphele said, referring to Tutu, “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?”
According to political analyst Steven Friedman, the authorities’ decision was probably influenced by South Africa’s recent inclusion in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc of nations, formerly known as BRIC. Critics have complained that when Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s president, he would never have allowed other governments to decide who should or shouldn’t be the country’s friends.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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