South Africa ponders issuing visa for Dalai Lama

Two retired icons and Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, are being kept waiting as the South African government weighs a decision on granting a visa for the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop for Cape Town, invited the Dalai Lama to attend his 80th birthday celebration next week and to deliver the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture on Oct. 8.

But the African National Congress government, wary of irritating the country’s largest trading partner, China, has refused to indicate whether it will grant the visa. According to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, it is under routine consideration.

South Africa refused the Dalai Lama a visa in 2009, when he planned to attend a Nobel laureates conference. However, he visited South Africa in 1996, meeting then-President Nelson Mandela.


Chinese officials are highly sensitive to countries granting a travel visa to the Dalai Lama or leaders meeting with him because of the Dalai Lama’s role in asserting Tibetan autonomy from China.

The issue is particularly awkward for the South African government because Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is on an official visit to China.

The issue underscores China’s growing clout in Africa, where it has invested billions of dollars in its bid to gain access to minerals and energy for its giant manufacturing sector.

The Dalai Lama, 76, gave up his role as Tibetan political leader in March but remains an important spiritual symbol, beloved by Tibetans. He fled Tibet during a failed uprising in 1959 and lives in exile in India.

Although the Dalai Lama’s visit would be private, the government may find it difficult to issue the visa for fear of offending a powerful patron. At Beijing’s invitation, South Africa this year joined a group of emerging economies, the so-called BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The Dalai Lama submitted his visa application in June but had to make three efforts before the form was finally accepted last week, according to his spokesman.

The Desmond Tutu Peace Center wrote to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation on Monday complaining that delays in granting the visa had thrown the organization of Tutu’s birthday events into disarray. Dumisa Ntsebeza, chairman of the center’s board of trustees, said Monday that he had four times sent letters to the department’s deputy minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, seeking information on the visa.

Tutu said the government would be shooting itself in the foot if it denied a visa to the Dalai Lama.


“I mean, it’s so sad to think that we have had a kind of experience of repression that we have had, in that we should want to kowtow to a hugely repressive regime that can dictate to us about freedom and things of that kind,” Tutu said in a recent interview with the Cape Times. “For oldies like us … it just gives us a sadness.”

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said Tuesday that South Africa should show its strength and maturity as a country by refusing to bow to Chinese pressure on the issue.

“China is a not a democracy with a constitution that governs through the rule of law,” party spokesman Stevens Mokgalapa said. “We should not allow it to have an undue influence on matters that go to the heart of our political independence.”

“As a BRICS partner with the Chinese,” he said, “we must view our relationship with them as equals, not subordinates.”