With the clock ticking to a deadline next week, South Africa is caught in an unhappy quandary: whether to anger its powerful Chinese allies by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit, or whether to infuriate its own liberation-struggle heroes by blocking a visit by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
At the heart of the dilemma is one of South Africa's most famous moral beacons: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle. It is Archbishop Tutu who has invited the Tibetan leader to South Africa to attend the archbishop's 80th birthday celebrations next week, and – for the second time in two years – his request is on the verge of being killed by his own government.
After a month of waiting, the Dalai Lama has still not heard whether South Africa will permit him to attend Archbishop Tutu's birthday events.
In a joint statement, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama condemned the government's reluctance to issue a visa to the Buddhist leader. And they raised the stakes by reminding the government that the banning of visits was an apartheid-era tactic.
The foot-dragging on the visa request is "profoundly disrespectful" and "reminiscent of the way authorities dealt with applications by black South Africans for travel documents under apartheid," they said.
In 2009, when it sparked a furor by blocking a planned visit by the Dalai Lama, the government blamed its decision on the soccer World Cup, even though the visit would have been 15 months before the World Cup.
At that time, Archbishop Tutu said the government was "shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure." He said he was ashamed at the "disgraceful" decision, which he called "a total betrayal of our struggle history."
This time, while no official reason has been given, Chinese pressure is once again the near-certain reason for South Africa's hesitation. Beijing has repeatedly attacked any government that permits a visit by the Dalai Lama, whom it denounces as a "splittist" and a "wolf in monk's robes." Chinese leaders have often retaliated politically against governments that hold meetings with the Dalai Lama.
China has become South Africa's biggest trading partner, buying more than $5-billion of its minerals annually, and South African leaders have praised China's "political discipline" as a model for Africa. In a reminder of its huge economic clout, China announced on Thursday that it would invest a further $2.5-billion in South Africa, creating jobs that the country desperately needs.
Sonam Tenzing, the Africa representative of the Dalai Lama, said on Thursday that the Tibetan leader's visa request has remained stalled, with only a few days remaining until the birthday events. He said the Dalai Lama has been waiting since Aug. 29, when his office submitted the full documentation and visa fee to the South African embassy in India.
South Africa's deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, is currently on an official visit to Beijing, where Chinese authorities have praised him for his "valuable support" on the Tibet issue.