Why did South Africa deny the Dalai Lama a visa?

It seems counterintuitive to say the least. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader in exile of Tibet, was denied a visa on Friday to attend a peace conference in Johannesburg, South Africa at the invitation of fellow Nobel Prize-honorees Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk. “Of all the nations on Earth that should ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
587536_090323_dalaitutu2.jpg
587536_090323_dalaitutu2.jpg
Hiroshima, JAPAN: Archbishop Emeritsus Desmond Tutu (R) of South Africa welcomes exiled Tibetan spritual leader Dalai Lama prior to the international peace conference in Hiroshima, 02 November 2006. The final day of a two-day international peace conference held in Hiroshima. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems counterintuitive to say the least. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader in exile of Tibet, was denied a visa on Friday to attend a peace conference in Johannesburg, South Africa at the invitation of fellow Nobel Prize-honorees Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk.

"Of all the nations on Earth that should empathise with [Tibetans'] plight, South Africa should" wrote The Times of South Africa. "We echo the accusation by Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, that barring the Dalai Lama is a 'total betrayal of our struggle history.'"

So what gives? A bit of real politik -- learned from France's mistakes with China late last year: Nicolas Sarkozy held a highly publicized meeting with the Dalai Lama only to have Beijing cancel its planned joint EU summit and skip France on its Premier Wen Jiabao's European tour. "I looked at a map of Europe on the plane. My trip goes around France," The Economist quoted Wen saying.

It seems counterintuitive to say the least. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader in exile of Tibet, was denied a visa on Friday to attend a peace conference in Johannesburg, South Africa at the invitation of fellow Nobel Prize-honorees Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk.

“Of all the nations on Earth that should empathise with [Tibetans’] plight, South Africa should” wrote The Times of South Africa. “We echo the accusation by Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, that barring the Dalai Lama is a ‘total betrayal of our struggle history.'”

So what gives? A bit of real politik — learned from France’s mistakes with China late last year: Nicolas Sarkozy held a highly publicized meeting with the Dalai Lama only to have Beijing cancel its planned joint EU summit and skip France on its Premier Wen Jiabao’s European tour. “I looked at a map of Europe on the plane. My trip goes around France,” The Economist quoted Wen saying.

South Africa, the rationale might go, can’t really afford a chill in relations.  The country accounts for one fifth of China’s trade with Africa; and South Africa depends increasingly on China for financing. So Archbishop Tutu had it quite right: “We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.”

In the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the country was also looking to head off what it saw as a public relations disaster in the making. Spokesman for the South Africa president told reporters, “at this time the whole world will be focused on the country as hosts of the 2010 World Cup. We want the focus to remain on South Africa… A visit now by the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet.”

But if avoiding the headlines was the goal, that strategy has backfired. The conference organizers have promised to pull out of the meeting and the press is eating it up and spitting the South African government out. So much for damage control.

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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