Outcry as Dalai Lama cancels trip

2011-10-04 12:57

South Africa’s foreign policy was slammed as naive and contrary to the Constitution after the Dalai Lama today cancelled his planned trip to South Africa because he was not granted a visa in time.

The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre said the decision, after a fruitless five-week wait for a visa to attend Tutu’s 80th birthday, marked a sad day.

“I do not even have the words to say how sad I feel. This is the darkest day,” said the centre’s spokesperson Nomfundo Wazala.

In a statement issued in India, where he lives in exile, the Dalai Lama said he had wanted to spare the South African government any further inconvenience but was sorry to disappoint his followers.

“His Holiness was to depart for South Africa on October 6, but visas have not been granted yet,” the Dalai Lama said in the statement.

“We are, therefore, now convinced that for whatever reason or reasons, the South African government finds it inconvenient to issue a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

“His Holiness has thus decided to call off his upcoming visit to South Africa, and he regrets the inconvenience caused to his hosts and the large number of the South African public who are keenly waiting to receive him and hear his message.”

It is widely believed that the government buckled under pressure from China – its biggest trading partner – which deems the Tibetan spiritual leader a “splittist” and discourages foreign leaders from hosting him.

Civil society coalition “Let Him in Now!” which held a candlelight vigil at Parliament yesterday to demand a visa for the Dalai Lama, said that although the visit was cancelled the issues at stake could not be ignored.

“The Dalai Lama’s humble decision should not in any manner remove the focus on the unaccountable, secretive and disrespectful way in which the South African government has dealt with this matter.

“This matter once again highlights that SA’s foreign policy is misaligned with our Constitution and the values contained in it.”

The Dalai Lama visited South Africa in 1996, 1999 and 2004 and was received by former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

In 2009, he was refused entry by the Zuma administration to attend a conference of Nobel laureates.

Political analyst Steven Friedman said the shift in foreign policy was likely, and wrongly, influenced by South Africa’s recent inclusion in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China and South Africa) bloc of emerging economic powers.

“The reality is that now the primary economic relationship we have in the world is the Brics relationship and this leads to decisions like this.

“But the idea, quite frankly, that international trading relations would be made or broken by receiving the Dalai Lama shows a total misunderstanding of the way the world works.”

He said United States President Barack Obama clearly understood this when he received the Dalai Lama at the White House in July in defiance of China’s stance on Tibet.

“China invests in Africa because it has important economic and strategic relationships here. Our relationship does not hinge on whether we grant entrance to the Dalai Lama or not.

“South Africans should be really worried that they have people in positions of authority who think it is the way it works.”

Government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi declined to comment.

The Dalai Lama had planned to spend eight days in South Africa.

He was due to deliver an inaugural peace lecture at the University of the Western Cape as part of Tutu’s birthday celebrations and was also invited to speak at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Wits vice chancellor and principal Loyiso Nongxa expressed his dismay at the turn of events.

“We, as South Africans, have a moral obligation to provide a platform for all voices to be heard, including the voice of the Dalai Lama.

“The state’s deliberate indecision ridicules the values pertaining to freedom of speech, expression and movement enshrined in our Constitution, and the freedoms for which so many South African have lived, and indeed died,” he said.

The Congress of SA Trade Unions has criticised the government for allowing China to “dictate” its foreign policy.

“Even though China is our biggest trading partner, we should not exchange our morality for dollars or yuan,” Cosatu’s Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich said.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi commented that it “was another blight on our reputation that the South African government gave in to pressure”.

Businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele said both Tutu and the Dalai Lama had been unfairly treated.

“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?” Ramphele said

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