John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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China, South Africa, and the Dalai Lama

by John Campbell
September 29, 2011

Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama (R), presents the International Campaign for Tibet's Light of Truth Award to South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a ceremony in Brussels June 1, 2006. (Thierry Roge/Courtesy Reuters)

The Zuma administration’s apparently ham-fisted response to the Dalai Lama’s visa application to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday celebration is generating accusations that Pretoria is unduly subordinating itself to Beijing. While officials are citing technical reasons for the delay, the press and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) are saying that it is the result of Chinese pressure. On September 28, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama publicly criticized the Zuma administration’s failure to respond to the visa request. The Tibetan religious leader has visited South Africa before, in 1996, to meet with then President Nelson Mandela. At the time, China had pressured South Africa not to let the Dalai Lama come. That pressure was publicly rebuffed by the president.

The Dalai Lama applied at the South African High Commission in New Delhi, where adjudication normally takes five days. While it is the Department of Home Affairs that typically grants or denies a visa, it is the Department of International Relations and Cooperation that is responding to questions about this one, reflecting the application’s hot-potato status.

In a September 27 press release, the DA said that a decision on the Dalai Lama’s visa should be based on South Africa’s value of “ubuntu” (humanity), and that it was “unacceptable” for Pretoria to relinquish its sovereignty to Beijing on such a matter.

The visa drama is unfolding against the backdrop of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s three-day trip to China to strengthen mutual economic ties. And on September 29, the South African oil corporation PetroSA signed a memorandum of understanding with the China International United Petroleum & Chemicals Co., Ltd. (UNIPEC).

Once again, the Zuma government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. China has become an important economic partner of South Africa within the BRICS and is an important source of investment. Yet to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama, ostensibly because of Chinese pressure, not only violates the values of the anti-apartheid, democratic movement, it is disrespectful of Desmond Tutu and seemingly highlights how far Pretoria has strayed from the ideals of Nelson Mandela. As the opposition Democratic Alliance points out “…because China is not a democracy with a constitution that governs through the rule of law, we should not allow it to have an undue influence on matters that go to the heart of our political independence…”

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Diana Kniazuk

    It does not surprise me that the Chinese government would object to the Dalai Lama’s visit to South Africa or to any other country for that matter, but it does surprise me that South Africa would bow to China so easily. China needs South African resources more than SA needs China. Just look at how heavily China is in Africa, i.e. railroads, goods, highways, Workers,etc. China needs, yes needs Africa’s resources.

  • Posted by Maduka


    When the West wrote Africa off in the 1990’s as a basket case, a vacuum was created and that vacuum is rapidly being filled by the Chinese. If you are a non Oil and Gas producing nation, you don’t have terrorists and you are too big to depend on aid for 40% of your budget, then China presents the most dynamic source of foreign investment. (Note: I did not say biggest, but most dynamic).

    South Africa is a major gateway to the rest of Africa and China is heavily involved in Africa.

    Secondly, Ambassador Campbell’s concerns notwithstanding, the political costs of rejecting the Dalai Lama’s visa to the ANC are negligible. Most of the ANC’s power base does not as much know whether the Dalai Lama is a man or a horse and frankly speaking, is not overly concerned whether he comes or goes.

    Even the US of recent has been less enthusiastic about welcoming the Dalai Lama. (Obama last received him through the White House back door).

    Finally, expect to see similar actions from resource rich nations that depend heavily on Chinese demand for economic growth (e.g. Australia, Brazil and Argentina).

  • Posted by WERNER H. FISCHER

    The Chinese government/the CCP is expecting from their not just bowing – they expect a KOWTOW – which has a long tradition in chinese political history. Of course the south african government – as mentioned above – is violating the basic democratic principles – but for sure, as Mr.Tutu said – this is another shot in their foot..

  • Posted by Sonam Zoksang

    When it comes to China’s interest, the rest of the world matters nothing. China ‘s mantra is “no interfering in their internal issue and don’t hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. In truth, their own people have no rights to speak their mind.
    China forgets that the Dalai Lama is the citizen of the world and the most beloved and respected person whose contribution to this world can not be matched by China’ power, influence and money.
    China’s interfering in South African’s internal matters not only hurt the feelings of the South Africans but it proves that China is against peace, non-violence and humanity.

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