A controversial decision to block a private visit by the Dalai Lama has sparked an agonizing round of soul-searching in South Africa, with mounting fears that the political party of Nelson Mandela is losing its moral stature on the world stage.
The government’s refusal to permit a visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader, coupled with its refusal to support a United Nations resolution against Syrian atrocities, has brought accusations that South Africa is succumbing to cowardice and commercial pressures.
Many people, including liberation heroes who fought beside Mr. Mandela in the battle against apartheid, are worried that South Africa is selling its principles to the highest bidder. Instead of permitting a visit by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the government has chosen to kowtow to the demands of China, its biggest trading partner.
As he sits quietly in retirement these days in his Tuscan-style villa in the pastoral grasslands of the Eastern Cape, the increasingly frail Mr. Mandela must be puzzled by the foreign policy that his political heirs have adopted.
In 1996, despite heavy pressure from the Chinese government, Mr. Mandela welcomed the Dalai Lama to the newly liberated South Africa. The two leaders beamed and clasped hands as they held their historic first meeting in the post-apartheid era, in a country where Mr. Mandela had become the first black president.
Yet today the heirs of Mr. Mandela have effectively banned the Tibetan spiritual leader from their country. For the second time since 2009, they have refused to give him an entry visa.
The Dalai Lama had merely wanted to make a private visit to attend the 80th birthday of his friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a respected comrade of Mr. Mandela in the anti-apartheid struggle.
But the ruling African National Congress has made it very clear that the Tibetan leader is unwelcome. It refused to explain its decision, but the reason was obvious: the growing links between the ANC and the Chinese Communist Party, and the government’s growing dependence on Chinese trade and investment.
While the public furor over this decision was growing noisier, the world saw another example of South Africa’s new foreign policy. At the UN Security Council, South Africa abstained in a vote on whether to authorize sanctions against Syria for its atrocities against civilians.
South Africa showed the same kind of timidity earlier this year when it supported the Libyan dictator, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. It refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Libyan rebels until long after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime.
In the aftermath of the Dalai Lama controversy, many South Africans are worried that their government has lost its way. The issue has dominated the front pages of South Africa’s newspapers this week, triggering a national debate on the decline of South Africa’s moral leadership.
When Mr. Mandela became the first president of a liberated South Africa in 1994, his country was hailed as a moral beacon for the world, an inspiration for freedom movements everywhere. Today that optimism has vanished.
Archbishop Tutu was stunned by the government’s refusal to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama. The decision was “disgraceful,” he said this week, visibly angry. “Our government is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it from the apartheid government.”
Addressing the government directly, he wagged his finger and said: “I am warning you, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are behaving in a way that is totally against the things for which we stood. I am warning you that we will pray as we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government.”
In response, the ANC issued a lengthy statement, urging Archbishop Tutu to “calm down” and telling him that his words were “unfortunate and totally misplaced.”
Nowhere in the statement, however, did the ANC attempt to explain why the Dalai Lama is not permitted to visit South Africa.
A few months ago, the ANC government issued a new foreign-policy white paper, promising to put human rights and “humanity” at the heart of its diplomacy. The decision on the Dalai Lama, critics say, is a betrayal of that policy.