The Dalai Lama and SA's Visa Dilemma

2014-09-14 20:52

Last week's debacle over the Dalai Lama's application for a Visa to attend a conference of Nobel Peace Prize in Cape Town as invited is generally understood to be a case of another "denied visas" in recent times.

But it is actually a controversy deepened by communication gaps. This is concerning because SA still battles to communicate awkward situations it gets into in its foreign policy decision making.

The bigger concern is the ease with which governments throughout the world including our own take decisions about desirability of visitors especially those involved in struggles of a sort.

Just a few weeks ago, the British government refused to grant a visa to Rene Gonzalez, a member of the famous Cuban Five arrested by the US when they went to Miami to work on efforts to counter "terror attacks against Cuba". The Cuban Five, two of which including Rene were released in 2011 and 2012 after serving their lengthy sentences, has over time become a source of shame for the US in the eyes of its own human rights establishment and other freedom-loving movements in the world, concerned also about the long blockage against the Cuban economy that the US has maintained in spite of UN resolutions, campaigns inside and outside the US for an end to blockade.

It is likely that the US would not grant him a visa were he to want to travel to promote dialogue on blockage. A few countries are now denying visa for people suspected of following radical political island. Databases of "undesirable" human beings are growing being shared more frequently between countries ostensible for counter-terror initiatives.

Human beings are feeling the gaze of the non-human, the state, which like the market can assume power to disappoint human beings whom it is supposed to serve. The state as we know it has its genesis in the early modern period in the west, as part of elite designs to reorganize sovereignty in their favour. The post-colonial state is an inherited state; it can therefore bring into the post-colonial era the logics of the colonial era. Yes, it can. We have that experience all over the world. In fact, on serious analysis, it is hard to identify a post-colonial state, economy or society in the former colonial territories. The "post" is a terrain of aspirations and hopes rather than objective reality. The post-colonial is located in the "Aluta continua" terrain, the dream being pursued. The democratic or independent state is not necessarily post-colonial.

The Dalai Lama visa issue is emerging for the second time in four years. The first case came to the fore when the organizers of a Cape Town conference of Nobel Peace Prize winners convened in 2011 by foundations linked to SA's four laureates - Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, De Klerk and Desmond Tutu - raised concerns that the SA government delayed making its decision on the application, sparking fears that SA was bowing to pressure from China with whom it has huge trade relations. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had also invited the Dalai Lama to his 80th birthday and hence his public lambasting of what he saw as government's refusal of a visa when in fact it was an unexplained delay in taking a decision to grant or not to grant.

In the case of the first week of September 2014, the date of travel drew so close that it is said the Dalai Lama withdrew his application, citing a tip off that the delay was because the visa would not be granted. The SA government was, like the British government on Rene, silent for a while until the matter became a huge public controversy. When it finally spoke it mostly stated the procedures and confirm receipt of the application, indicating that it was still processing it.

Leaks by officials to the media indicated that SA was worried about annoying China and risking billions of rands in investments. So, SA did not take any firm decision on the visa application, but simply delayed acting on the application according to statemets by the visitor's office.

This sparked a huge controversy because it is becoming a pattern that the Dalai Lama visa applications are handled in the same way: silence and delay. The issue is becoming an opportunity to put a spotlight on the ability of South Africa to maintain an independent foreign policy notwithstanding its hugely important political and economic relations with China.

It is not whether it grants the visa or not that is problematic, but that it does not explain its indecision that harms the country's integrity more profoundly. Those who want the country to simply admit the Dalai Lama like those who desire this in order to annoy China a bit either because they feel it has become another hegemon or because they just dislike it, turn this into a case of SA bowing to Chinese pressure. China does not recognise Tibet's aspirations to declare independence from China and does put pressure on other countries against secessionists. It is assumed that SA has also come under Beijing's pressure. The SA government does not have a convincing answer to this charge.

In the latest saga, Beijing is reported to have thanked SA for supporting its position on sovereignty and territorial integrity, suggesting that it saw the SA position as being in respect of the One-China Policy.

But the SA government has not explained its decisions now and in the past incidence. It has also not disputed the Chinese line, neither has it commented on the statement by the Dalai Lama's office reporting that they were contacted by government by phone indicating that the visa would not be granted.

It simply issued a statement confirming the application and that due procedures for processing applications had started. A few days later it issued another short statement confirming that the Dalai Lama had withdrawn the application. No explanation, of course technically speaking the applicant withdrew and the case is closed. Politically, it is much more complicated. It required the government to explain itself.

SA has the right to refuse any one a visa when they apply. It not obliged to grant one to the Dalai Lama simply because he is a prominent figure. It grants visas to all sorts of religious figures and political actors including those that may be disliked by their own governments. Perhaps, there is a specific case that it sees in the Dalai Lama case, but how does one know unless this is communicated?

The failure to communicate fully and timely is a matter of concern because it does not help SA avoid the tag of being a subordinate state of a sort. It does not help it respond to the human rights lobby that wants to reduce this into a human rights issue. It creates an impression that the government does not know how to explain this particular awkward position it has.

This brings to mind the difficulty of keeping one's independence in the period of globalisation. When Western powers tried to prevent Nelson Mamdela from interacting with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libya's Muammr Qadaffi in the 1990s, he and his government flatly refused to be influenced the big powers' national interest. They refused to let the huge trade and investment relations determine the character of the country's foreign policy. Perhaps, the circumstances are different this time, but this too must be explained.

Those familiar with the impact of power asymmetry on public policies of weaker states should know that it is common that their choices are constrained. They should not be shy to explain the choices they make not to offend the powerful. It is a legitimate choice that can be explained in terms of political values like solidarity or economic benefits.

The British government used the fact that Rene served a prison sentence longer than 5 years to deny his visa. While the UK law allows for exceptions, the government refused to consider the fact that Rene was to serve as a chief witness in an international commission on the Cuban Five in its sitting in London. At least, it issued formal statements on its actual reason in making a decision because it did not want to second-guessed in the controversy that follow. It may not be required in law, but in matters with dome public interest it is wise for government to communicate more effectively.

Generally speaking, time should come when visas should not be used by governments the world over to stop peaceful people from entering countries. Governments are making determinations about who is desirable and who is not. They can use this power to limit the rights of citizens of the world in the name of some national law or national sovereignty, a principle in our case related to the carving of the continent into countries by colonial powers. Interestingly, it is very same carvings that we would go to war and great lengths to preserve to ourselves and keep others out of them. The curse of Berlin lingers on in new and quite unique ways.

Even the big states that preach democracy and human rights and emerging ones that preach the same frequently display the power of the state to limit human movement, mostly the poor and hardly the movement of billionaires. The new world order must therefore be also post-nation state.

The sooner we explain, our position will be subject to rumours, leaks, conjecture, hyperbole and even untruths. But what do citizens do during information squeeze, but to innovate?

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