Dalai Lama cancels South Africa trip. Did China trade ties get in the way?

The Dalai Lama said he was forced to cancel a trip to South Africa due to visa delays. Critics say it's a foreign policy embarrassment.

Ashwini Bhatia/AP
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama arrives to give a religious talk at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, Tuesday. The four-day talk organized for a Taiwanese Buddhist group ends Tuesday. The Dalai Lama was forced to cancel a trip to South Africa due to visa delays.

Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama – who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent political and spiritual guidance of the Tibetan people from his government in exile – has canceled a trip to South Africa, saying the South African government didn’t issue him a visa.

The Dalai Lama had been invited by fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu to attend Mr. Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations, but the South African government failed to issue him a visa after several weeks of delays. The cancellation is seen by political observers as a sharp embarrassment for the South African government, which refused to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama last year.

Steven Friedman, a political analyst and director of the University of Johannesburg’s Center for the Study of Democracy, says that South Africa’s delay in issuing a visa was part of the government’s growing desire to cultivate relations with China, which has controlled Tibet since invading that country in 1959.

“I think it’s a source of international embarrassment,” says Mr. Friedman. “South Africa identifies itself more as a partner of BRICS” – the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa – “but that is now being taken to absurd levels, and they’re behaving as if being a member of BRICS means you have to do what other members of BRICS tell you. I don’t think that idea would occur to Russia or China, but somehow it’s what we’re doing.”

China: South Africa's largest trading partner

China recently overtook the US and Britain as South Africa’s largest trading partner, and in a trade visit last week led by South African deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, China announced a further $2.5 billion investment plan in South Africa’s minerals market, including refineries that would create thousands of new jobs in South Africa.

South Africa didn't actually deny the Dalai Lama a visa this time, although it did do so ahead of the 2010 World Cup. But its bureaucratic delays had the same effect. From New Delhi, the Dalai Lama’s office issued a terse statement that the Dalai Lama would be forced to cancel his trip.

"His Holiness was to depart for South Africa on October 6, 2011 but visas have not been granted yet," the Dalai Lama’s office said. "We are, therefore, now convinced that for whatever reason or reasons, the South African government finds it inconvenient to issue visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama."

A disappointment for rights activists

The Dalai Lama’s cancellation came as a disappointment to many South African human rights advocates and even to members of South Africa’s own ruling “tripartite” government, which comprises the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

“Even though China is our biggest trading partner, we should not exchange our morality for dollars or yuan,” said Tony Ehrenreich, COSATU’s leader in Cape Town, quoted in the Independent newspaper last night.

Desmond Tutu calls the situation 'disgraceful'

Archbishop Tutu called the South African government’s treatment of the Dalai Lama “disgraceful,” and the University of Witwatersrand – which had invited the Dalai Lama to speak during his visit – issued a statement on Tuesday expressing its "profound dismay at the South African government for silencing the voice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama."

As embarrassing as this current news is, Friedman says it is not an indication that South African foreign policy is on a rapid decline.

“We’ve been making inappropriate foreign policy decisions for years,” laughs Friedman. “Under [former President Thabo Mbeki], we voted to support the Burmese junta, the worst government there is, for goodness sake, so it’s not a situation where suddenly a clearly thought-out foreign policy has been decided.”

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