Outrage has greeted the government's ban on a visit to South Africa by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who was due to take part in a 2010 World Cup-organised peace conference in Johannesburg on Friday.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who is in California, told the Sunday Tribune he was upset at the refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama and had written to President Kgalema Motlanthe asking him for an explanation.

"If His Holiness's visa is refused, then I won't take part in the coming 2010 World Cup-related peace conference. I will condemn government's behaviour as disgraceful, in line with our country's abysmal record at the United Nations Security Council, a total betrayal of our struggle history," he said.

"We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure; I feel deeply distressed and ashamed," he said.

The Dalai Lama had been invited by his three fellow South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk, and Tutu.

Dave Steward, spokesman for the F W De Klerk Foundation, said, "There is no reason why the Dalai Lama, who is recognised as a champion of peace, and as a Nobel Laureate, should be denied entry into South Africa.

"South Africa should not allow any country to dictate who it should and should not allow to visit."

The Dalai Lama, who is honorary co-chairman of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, was denied travel documents on March 4 and asked to postpone the trip amid opposition from the Chinese government.

Over the past two years, South Africa has been China's key trade partner in Africa, accounting for 20.8 percent of China's trade with Africa, while Chinese foreign direct investment in South Africa was about $6 billion (R60bn), and South Africa's foreign direct investment in China came to $2bn (R20bn).

Dai Bing, ministerial counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, confirmed that his government had appealed to the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into the country, warning that if it did so, this would harm bilateral relations.

Dai said this was a particularly inopportune time for the Dalai Lama to visit the country as it was the 60th anniversary of what Tibetans regard as China's military invasion of Tibet, but which the Chinese government describes as its liberation of Tibetans from feudal serfdom.

It was also the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet into exile in India and the first anniversary of the serious political unrest in Tibet last March.

The South African Friends of Tibet said yesterday that the barring of the Dalai Lama from the peace conference made a mockery of the intentions of this conference, and it appealled to the conference organisers, the 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee, to postpone the proceedings until the Dalai Lama had been issued travel documents to South Africa.

The lobby group expressed dismay at the withholding of travel documents to the Dalai Lama, as South Africa bowed to pressure from one of the world's most oppressive nations, claiming that S F Moloi, the South African high commissioner in New Delhi, had effectively banned the Dalai Lama by not processing his travel documents,and requesting him to postpone the trip.

Ronnie Mamoepa, the foreign affairs spokesman, denied the government was blocking the invite to the Dalai Lama, insisting that, "no invitation had been extended to the Dalai Lama".

When it was put to him that the Tibetan office in Pretoria had applied for a visa for the Dalai Lama on March 4, Mamoepa said; "Visas are issued by Home Affairs and not us…"

Asked if South Africa had withheld an invitation to the Dalai Lama under pressure from China, Mamoepa said, "This place is called the Republic of South Africa and not China and thus makes its own sovereign, independent decisions based on what it deems to be in the best interests of the country."

The Dalai Lama was invited to speak at the conference, whose line-up includes the Nobel Peace Prize committee from Norway and Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, who plays Mandela in a movie about the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

However, in a letter sent last week to the three South African Nobel Laureates, the Dalai Lama apologised for not being able to attend, saying he had been asked to postpone the trip.

The Dalai Lama has visited South Africa twice before. In 1999 he took part in the World Parliament of Religions and met then President Thabo Mbeki.

However, a row broke out after Mbeki agreed to see the Dalai Lama again separately. The Chinese government protested and Mbeki cancelled the meeting.

In 2004 the Dalai Lama again visited South Africa as a guest of the African Cultural Heritage Trust.