Bowing to China

2009-03-25 00:00

South Africa has refused to allow the Dalai Lama to enter the country in order to attend the 2010 World Cup peace conference, starting in Johannesburg on Friday. In so doing, President Kgalema Motlanthe has struck at the heart of the principle underlying the conference, the stated purpose of which is to discuss how the uniting effect of football may help overcome racism and xenophobia.

The excuse relayed by Motlanthe’s spokesman, Thabo Masebe, is utterly feeble. A visit by the Dalai Lama at this stage is not in South Africa’s interest, he said, because it will distract the world’s attention from the World Cup preparations here, and focus it instead on problems in Tibet.

Wrong. To ban the Dalai Lama, internationally beloved champion of peace, compassion and legitimate protest, will focus attention on Tibet. It will also shine an embarrassingly harsh light on South Africa and the speed with which it is sliding away from the democratic principles and freedoms enshrined in our much praised Constitution. Further, it will draw attention to the fact that while constantly critical of “Western imperialism”, South Africa and other southern African countries now meekly accept the growing Eastern imperialism of China. While the Chinese embassy has admitted asking the South African government to prevent the Dalai Lama’s visit, Masebe denies any Chinese influence. Why lie, unless the government is ashamed of appearing to be China’s servant?

The invitation to the Dalai Lama was extended last November by South African Nobel peace laureates F. W. de Klerk, former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. If the ban remains in force, De Klerk and Tutu believe this will make a mockery of Friday’s event, which was to have celebrated South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy. If that happens, they will not attend.

As so often these days — and in all aspects of South African life — the government’s decision puts expediency before principle and takes us further from the values all South Africans once sincerely championed. And so we have lost the opportunity, at what should have been the perfect curtain-raiser to the World Cup, to make a vital case for the oneness of humankind. Instead, the government has endorsed the very racism and xenophobia that endanger us all.

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