Officials hoped that turning away Tibet's most famous monk would keep the "focus" on its upcoming 2010 World Cup soccer tournament and keep the games from being overshadowed by politics. But instead South Africa has kicked up a firestorm over its commitment to human rights and its increasingly close ties with China.
A nation that freed itself from an apartheid government, South Africa would seem to have much in common with leading liberation figures like the Dalai Lama, who speaks for about 5.4 million Tibetans, who live under Chinese rule.
But as a nation that depends heavily on Chinese markets for buying its rich natural resources, South Africa has given the appearance of having chosen commerce over principle. It's a decision that could cost South Africa its moral voice on the global stage.
"Because of the role of the ANC during the liberal struggle against apartheid, South Africa was seen as a beacon of all things moral, a beacon of human rights," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior political analyst (and former member of the ANC, the ruling African National Congress) at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "Unfortunately, the reality is that when the South African government was tested on its principles, it has fallen short."
Like China's own 2008 Summer Olympics, South Africa views its coming 2010 World Cup as a kind of coming-out party, and thus, not something to be messed up with politics.
Officials insist their decision to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama – technically, they add, he was never invited – was made without Chinese influence, but it has incurred damaging political criticism because of China's human rights record in Tibet – which it has occupied since 1959.
A scheduled peace conference in Cape Town, called by the support committee of the 2010 World Cup and intended to show the bridge between peace and sport, has now been postponed. Two of the three South African Nobel laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Frederik De Klerk, canceled their own attendance at the peace conference in protest, and the third laureate, Nelson Mandela, is thought to be close to making the same decision.
Even members of the South African government lambasted the decision.
"Just the very fact that this government has refused entry to the Dalai Lama is an example of a government who is dismissive of human rights," said Health Minister Barbara Hogan. "I believe [the government] needs to apologize to the citizens of this country, because it is in your name that this great man who has struggled for the rights of his country ... has been denied access."
Mr. Matshiqi says the South African government clearly put its economic and political interests ahead of its moral principles, although he admits, "foreign policy is an exercise in double standards."
"There's only one explanation, it must be linked to South Africa's perceived geopolitical and economic interests, as it pertains to China," says Matshiqi. "Either China communicated their displeasure at the possible invitation of the Dalai Lama, or alternatively, the South Africans came to the conclusion on [their] own."
South African spokesman Thabo Masebe said Monday that the decision was in the best interest of the games, and not the result of Chinese pressure. "We want the focus to remain on South Africa," he said. "A visit by the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet."
But in Beijing, Chinese officials expressed their appreciation for countries, like South Africa, that had turned away from the Tibetan monk.
"All countries should respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity ... and oppose Tibetan independence," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang. "We appreciate the relevant countries' measures."