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SOUTH AFRICA: Weighing China's sensitivity over Dalai Lama visa

September 28, 2011 |  8:12 am

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

Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop for Cape Town, invited the Dalai Lama to attend his 80th birthday celebrations 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 if it will grant the visa. According to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, the visa is under routine consideration.

South Africa has refused the Dalai Lama a visa before, 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 about 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 awkward for the South African government because Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is currently 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 access 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.

Tutu says the government would shoot 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.”

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-- Robyn Dixon

Photo: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama arrives to lead a prayer session at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, on Monday. Credit: Ashwini Bhatia / Associated Press.

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