South African officials may block the Dalai Lama from celebrating the 80th birthday of his friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, amid fears Chinese pressure is trumping the country’s much-vaunted policies on freedom of speech and human rights.
South African newspapers are already drawing parallels between the situations of Tibetans under Chinese rule and black South Africans under the racist apartheid regime that ended in 1994. The tensions over the Dalai Lama’s visa application are also a sign of how powerful China’s influence has grown in Africa.
“Our leadership has a clear choice: to look deep into the African soul and emulate [former South African president Nelson] Mandela’s actions by extending a hand of friendship, while at the same time understanding that it won’t, in fact, have any real impact on our relations with China,” an editorial in the Daily Maverick said. “Or, once again to yield as the people who will submit to the will of another nation, to constrict our spirit and our standing as a moral society, and close our doors on a genuine man of peace and the justified hopes of his people.”
The Dalai Lama is to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture, titled “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change,” as part of the Oct. 6 to 8 birthday celebrations for Tutu.
The center that invited the Dalai Lama says he first tried to apply for a visa in June, but was told it was too far ahead of his trip. Later, South African officials said they couldn’t process the visa with a photocopied passport and had to wait for him to submit his original document.
“We’ve sent letters, following up on a daily basis with phone calls and still are in a situation where there is no response and it’s getting us much more anxious,” said Nomfundo Wazala, chief executive of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre which invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa. “We have been patient, but we really feel at this point in time we deserve an answer.”
The Dalai Lama fled the Himalayan region in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule. The 76-year-old leader says he is only seeking increased autonomy for Tibet, not independence. He gave up his political role in the Tibetan exile movement in March, but he remains its spiritual head.
The Dalai Lama was welcomed to South Africa on his first visit in 1996 and had a memorable visit with Mandela. However, in 2009, the South African government outraged many by banning the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates’ peace conference, saying it would detract attention from last year’s soccer World Cup.
Tutu called it “disgraceful” and accused the government of “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure” — a charge officials denied.