Why can’t we enter the dragon bravely?

2011-10-08 10:23

There was an easy way out of the visa drama: the Dalai Lama could simply have flown into Zimbabwe and walked across the border like millions of other people do.
This joke pointed to the hilarity of government’s officious position on the granting of the visa, given how easy it is to cross our porous borders.

There was another way that would have satisfied the interests of South Africa’s growing relationship with China while ensuring that we do not lose our essential moorings of solidarity and sovereignty: Pretoria could simply have given the Dalai Lama a visa but made it clear that his visit would be allowed only to be at the birthday of an old friend and that it would not be a state visit.

In this way, South Africa would have held fast to its reputation of being a sovereign emerging country which safeguards its independence like Turkey and Brazil do, but also not have made us vulnerable to China’s diplomatic torture.

And we would not now sit with a saddened Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose milestone birthday has been marred by the visa refusal and also by his effective divorce from a movement which has defined him.

Tutu has been a pain in the butt of the ANC for a while now, but his criticism has always been made as the elder inside the movement.

This week, he broke ranks, placing himself in an opposition role. He will, he said, pray for the downfall of a bloated and arrogant majority party which he likened to that of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

Hard talk. But the ANC would do well to listen beyond its discomfort for in his statement is a profound truth about many post-colonial liberation movements and independence parties.

If they lose their way and eschew their values, they lose the support of the intelligentsia and
religious authorities.

Did we reach such a moment this week as Tutu lambasted the ANC, joined by the eminent thinkers Njabulo Ndebele and Mamphela Ramphele? Only the most arrogant in the ruling party would not pause to think about what this week meant for our larger contemporary history.

Still, we are not naive. China is an awakening dragon and South Africa’s privileged bilateral ­relationship is an important one to shore up trade links for tomorrow and secure the many dreams we still need to make a reality.

But we should not kowtow so low to Beijing that we forget that South Africa’s place in the world is secured by the quality of its global leaders like Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and, of course, Tutu himself.

Our size and position in Africa is attractive but we would argue that our moral heft, and our past insistence on solidarity and principle are as valuable assets to protect as we “enter the dragon”.

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