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Where has Mandela's legacy gone?

South Africa

Senterpartiet under a Creative Commons Licence

The Dalai Lama’s efforts to facilitate global dialogue about Tibet-China relations have been long supported by South African visionaries, including the late President Nelson Mandela.

The decision to deny a visa to the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, so as not to upset China, feeds into groundless allegations from Chinese hardliners that the Dalai Lama is ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and undermines ongoing efforts for reconciliation between China and Tibet.

South Africa’s decision reflects the Chinese government’s penchant for using its economic prowess to encroach upon the internal affairs of other states. It also shows the ruling African National Congress (ANC)’s blatant disregard for the democratic ideals for which Mandela struggled.

The Dalai Lama, who has been in exile since 1959, will now be unable to attend the 14th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, which is to be held in Cape Town on 13 October.

According to media reports, the South African government claimed the Dalai Lama’s visa was cancelled at the last minute. However, the Office of Tibet in Pretoria stated it had been informed that the visa was denied so as not to disturb relations between South Africa and China.

China is known to have had an ambivalent attitude towards Mandela since his election in 1994, after which he ambitiously attempted to recognize both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China as independent states.

In 1998, the ANC switched official recognition to China only, signalling the start of a shift in governmental vision, from one that focused internally on the promotion of human rights under Mandela, to one that prioritized economic advancement in a global context, under President Thabo Mbeki and, now, President Jacob Zuma.

China is South Africa’s key trading partner, with official data showing last year’s exports to be worth around $10 billion.

As Sino-South African trade relations have been consolidated, keeping China happy has become a top priority for the South African government – so much so that it is reneging on its historical principles.

There is an undeniable resemblance between the apartheid struggle and the Tibetan yearning for autonomy. Mandela consistently exhibited his solidarity with the Dalai Lama, meeting him publicly in 1996 and 2004. The denial of the Tibetan leader’s visa undermines Mandela’s legacy.

This is not the first time China has exercised its economic muscle to pressure other governments into limiting contact with Tibet.

In February, it urged US President Barack Obama to cancel his meeting with the Dalai Lama, warning it could ‘seriously damage’ US-China relations. Obama had a low-key audience with the Tibetan leader regardless, and political analysts said they expected minimal consequences as a result of the meeting.

In comparison (and I say this sympathetically), South Africa lacks the economic and political backbone to disregard a threat from China. As a relatively new addition to the BRICS club of major emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), it is clearly the straggler.

Yet, the question must be asked: how much threat can China impose based on a purely sovereign decision? It sounds as if South Africa is simply erring on the side of caution, so as not to upset Beijing.

This is the third consecutive time the Dalai Lama’s office has been forced to cancel a trip to South Africa; the last incident in 2011 meant he was unable to attend fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. At the time, the archbishop referred to the denial of entry as ‘a total betrayal of our struggle’s history’.   

Organizers of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates have confirmed that 13 individuals and eight organizations will be attending.  However, Roger Friedman, spokesperson for Archbishop Tutu, has indicated the reluctance of other invited guests to attend if the Dalai Lama is not able to.

So, China wins a small hoorah in its long-standing dispute with the Dalai Lama, while South Africa is left to deal with the backlash of the international humanitarian community, in addition to facing uncomfortable questions about compromised values.

The easy surrender of sovereignty is a national hypocrisy, given that post-apartheid South Africa, under the leadership of the ANC, was characterized by the struggle to overcome oppression and commit to democratic freedoms. Ironically, 2014 marks 20 years of South African democracy.

Amanda D'Costa writes on conscious travel and consumption, environmental protection and social issues.

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