Dalai Lama visa saga continues

Cape Town - The government stuck to its refusal to pronounce on the Dalai Lama's visa application on Monday but came under pressure from rights activists and ally Cosatu to allow him into the country.

“Even though China is our biggest trading partner, we should not exchange our morality for dollars or yuan,” the trade union federation's Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich told a candlelight vigil outside Parliament.

The Dalai Lama. Credit: Reuters

“It is completely inappropriate and discriminatory that the Dalai Lama should be denied access. Our democracy is founded on diversity, imperfect as it is.”

Ehrenreich said South Africans wanted to see the rights of the Tibetan spiritual leader respected and warned: “The government must not act against the will of the people because then you are no longer acting on our behalf.”

Opposition leader Helen Zille and academic Mamphele Rampehle accused the government of betraying South Africa's sovereignty and Constitution.

“We cannot be blackmailed into defying our Constitution,” Zille said at the peaceful protest by 200 people, some of them praying.

Earlier on Monday, a representative of the Dalai Lama said requests for information from the South African High Commission in India, where he lives in exile, had proved fruitless.

“We have not been told anything. I spoke to my colleague in New Delhi and they are still waiting. The high commission has closed now for the day,” Sonam Tenzing said.

Tenzing added that high commission staff in New Delhi told his colleagues they were awaiting a decision from Pretoria “because it is a political decision” that must be made by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

The Dalai Lama, 76, applied for a visa in August to allow him to attend the 80th birthday celebrations of his friend and fellow Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on Friday.

International Relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela would not comment on the application, except to say that any eventual decision would be communicated only to the Dalai Lama.

President Jacob Zuma said he had no hand in the decision.

He told a business breakfast in Johannesburg: “I don't know what will be the final thing. I don't think that you can get a definite answer from me.”

The Dalai Lama visited South Africa on three occasions between 1996 and 2004, and met former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

In 2009, he was refused entry by the Zuma administration to attend a conference of Nobel laureates. The government said the visit would detract from preparations for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The decision drew criticism from abroad and at home, with then public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan saying it showed the government was “dismissive of human rights”.

She was reprimanded and forced to apologise to her Cabinet colleagues. Tutu termed the decision “disgraceful” and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) vice-chancellor and principal Loyiso Nongxa said it “ridicules the values enshrined in our Constitution”.

Wits has again invited the Dalai Lama to speak at the university and another outcry is expected if he is again denied entry into South Africa.

The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet during a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

He accepts Chinese rule and stepped down from political life earlier this year, but Beijing accuses him of being a “splittist” and discourages his meetings with foreign government leaders.

In July, China signalled its displeasure after United States President Barack Obama received the Dalai Lama at the White House.

As part of Tutu's birthday celebrations from October 6 to 8, he was expected to deliver a speech titled “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change” to students.

Ramphele said after all Tutu had done for South Africa, “to prevent a lovely party of a set of old men is really not fair”.

“In foreign policy we must display strength, not weakness,” she added. - Sapa