The Dalai Lama is welcome to visit South Africa, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane said on Thursday.

However, she added that nobody may abuse the country's pro-human rights stance for their own agenda.

"The Dalai Lama is more than free, like any other citizen of the world who would want to, to visit South Africa. South Africa does not discriminate against anyone," the newly appointed minister told reporters in Pretoria.

She added that South Africa's foreign policy was "underpinned by human rights, but that does not mean it can be misinterpreted in the interests of certain quarters".

The Dalai Lama was refused a visa to attend a peace conference linked to the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa in March, triggering an outcry that saw the event postponed indefinitely.

Pretoria initially said it did not want his presence to overshadow the aim of the conference, but later conceded it had also acted to protect its economic ties with Beijing.

The conference coincided with the 50th anniversary of the failed uprising against China in Tibet and China feared that the Buddhist leader would use the conference as a political platform.

Nkoane-Mashabane said South Africa hoped to strengthen ties with China and foresaw no change in policy towards the country.

"We've got very sound relations with China and that needs to be strengthened and we will do so," she said.

The main thrust of foreign policy would remain unchanged, including South Africa's controversial handling of the political situation in Zimbabwe.

Asked whether South Africa would press President Robert Mugabe to step down, she said it was for the people of Zimbabwe to decide, while South Africa would focus on helping to rebuild its northern neighbour.

"They have voted and they can do so again."

She defended one of South Africa's recent most controversial foreign policy decisions - voting in the UN Security Council against sanctions against Myanmar's military junta on the grounds that the regime did not constitute a threat to international peace and security.

She said the Security Council was not the right forum to deal with the issue.

"We should not mix these things up."

Nkoane-Mashabane said South Africa would continue to make the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and Africa the primary focus of its foreign policy.

The name change of her department, from foreign affairs to international relations and co-operation, was a bid by government to ensure a holistic approach to foreign relations which reflected a developmental agenda.

"The name change moves from the premise that foreign policy is based upon and an advancement of domestic priorities at international level," she said.

The name changes were aimed at making the state machinery more efficient and service-delivery oriented.

"Similarly, the changes will ensure alignment of government structures with the electoral mandate and our developmental needs. The thrust of these structural changes is to advance our central objective of creating a better life for all South Africans."

She explained that there were discussions about establishing a developmental agency which would assist in the pursuit of the notion of a better Africa in a better world.

"It is our view that such an agency, if established, will enhance our developmental agenda, which continues to rest on the key pillars of our foreign policy, namely consolidation of the African agenda, strengthening South-South co-operation, strengthening North-South relations, strengthening political and economic relations, as well as participating in the global system of governance." - Sapa