South Africa Damages its Image Over the Dalai Lama

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One week ago, South Africa was forced to cancel the 14th World Peace Summit, which had been scheduled to start October 13 in Cape Town, after nine former Nobel Peace Laureates and 11 affiliated organizations announced they would boycott the conference.

The former peace prize winners, including Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, American activist Jody Williams, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, Northern Irish activist Mairead Maguire and a representative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, protested against South Africa’s decision to deny the Dalai Lama a visa to attend the event. The event was billed as the largest gathering of Nobel laureates and was to be dedicated to Nelson Mandela, the late South African leader who was also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. South Africa would have been the first African country to host the event.

The decision to reject the visa – not the first rejection actually – was made in early September. Even though it made headline news in the international press, it was praised by China which considers the Dalai Lama a force for Tibetan separatism. A foreign ministry spokesperson noted back then that “China highly commends the firm support that the government of South Africa has shown to China on issues regarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He added that such support was “implied in the comprehensive and strategic partnership between China and South Africa.”

The cancellation of the whole event brought the issue back on the table now. In an emotional letter to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Irish Nobel Peace Laureate Betty Williams explained why she would not be attending: “Shame on you South Africa, you throw all that hard work back in the faces of those who sacrificed for your freedom. His Holiness has non-violently struggled to regain a country that is rightfully his - Tibet. His struggle is my struggle. No entry for my friend, for me means I do not wish to enter.”Tutu himself issued a statement describing President Jacob Zuma’s government as cowardly: “I am ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government.

The cancellation of the event is expected to rob Cape Town of more than $5 million in economic activity and it has intensified anger at President Zuma, who has been accused, once again, of bowing to Beijing over fears of endangering economic ties between the two countries. Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille was quoted by the daily newspaper The Star saying: “There is no doubt that the South African government is to blame for this situation. In doing so, they have undermined SA’s international standing and embarrassed the country.” How long, she added, “must we continue to sit and watch while our country is being sold to the biggest bidder, called China?”

China-South Africa relations intensified in recent years, especially in the context of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Xi Jinping and Jacob Zuma held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 2014 BRICS summit and Zuma is expected to visit Beijing later this year. Beijing generally reacts angrily when the exiled Tibetan leader is allowed to attend high-profile events in other countries and that anger can extend beyond diplomatic formalities to have real-world consequences. In 2012, when British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in London, Beijing responded by cancelling bilateral ministerial meetings. For over a year, there was no meaningful diplomatic contact between the two governments, while Beijing pointedly favored the U.K.’s European rivals, France and Germany, with diplomatic visits and economic agreements. In 2007, when German chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama in the chancellery, China cancelled meetings between Chinese and German government officials and still months later one could hear German diplomats in Beijing complaining about how difficult it was to get in contact with their Chinese counterparts.

While it remains unclear whether the visa cancellation happened at China’s direct insistence or as a result of obsequiousness on the part of South African officials, two points become obvious: China apparently is the major power in new African-Asian interactions and Brecht was right when he famously noted: “grub first, then ethics.”

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