A conference celebrating South Africa’s emergence as a multi-racial society after decades of white minority rule has been called off after the Pretoria government refused to give a visa to a principal guest, Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The peace conference bringing together South African Nobel Peace Prize laureates and international advocates of peaceful reform was due to be held in Johannesburg on Friday as a prelude to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup of soccer next year.
But organizers decided to “postpone indefinitely” the conference, whose theme was to be soccer’s role in overcoming racism and xenophobia, after several leading guests accused Pretoria of bowing to pressure from Beijing, which accuses the exiled Dalai Lama of promoting the separation of Tibet from China.
Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela and one of the conference organizers, said Pretoria’s action “is really tainting our own efforts at democracy. It’s a sad day for South Africa, it’s a sad day for Africa.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading campaigns against apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s, said: “We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.”
Tutu and another South African Nobel Peace Prize winner, F.W. de Klerk, the last white president who began to dismantle apartheid, both said they would boycott the peace conference to protest the exclusion of the Dalai Lama.
The invitation to the Dalai Lama was sent in the names of Tutu, de Klerk and the third South Africa peace prize laureate, Nelson Mandela.
A government spokesman, Thabo Masebe, insisted on Tuesday the decision not to give a visa to the Dalai Lama was made by Pretoria alone, in the belief that the Tibetan spiritual leader’s presence at the conference would detract from its theme. He added that the Dalai Lama will not be allowed to visit South Africa before the 2010 World Cup.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, did not address the South African situation directly when questioned at his regular news conference on Tuesday.
“China applauds the position of those countries that respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, adhere to the one-China policy and oppose the independence of Tibet,” he said.
“The true colours of the Dalai Lama as a secessionist and hypocrite has been [sic] recognized by more and more countries and people around the world.”
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet 50 years ago as Chinese troops crushed a separatist uprising, insists he only wants Beijing to fulfil its promise when it occupied the Himalayan nation in 1950 and grant Tibetans autonomy and religious and cultural freedom within China.
But Beijing is alarmed at the international respect for the Dalai Lama as well as his decreasing political influence over young Tibetans at home and in exile. They increasingly back independence for their homeland, which covers a quarter of Chinese territory.
The anniversary of the 1959 uprising and anti-Chinese riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa a year ago have heightened sensitivities about the issue of China’s occupation of Tibet.
Taiwan recently refused to give the Dalai Lama a visitor’s visa, saying “the time is not opportune,” after he was invited to give a speech in Taipei.
Last year China cancelled a regular summit with the European Union after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he planned to meet the Dalai Lama.
BY JONATHAN MANTHORPE