David Saks
David Saks

Mandela and the Dalai Lama

So damaging was the fall-out over South Africa’s denying the Dalai Lama a visa when he wished to attend a peace conference a couple of years ago that it was hard to imagine such a blunder being repeated. At the time, it was perhaps the most egregious example of the last administration’s penchant for shloeping up foreign dictatorships, especially those that had been supportive during the struggle.

Well, bizarrely enough, it’s happened again. This time, the Tibetan spiritual leader has been compelled to call off a planned trip to attend Archbishop Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations at the weekend. The predictable result is that this country is taking another public-relations beating. Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, executive director of Unisa’s research department, has described the cancellation as a “huge, huge publicity disaster” for South Africa. As for Tutu, he has told the government: “I am warning you like I warned the nationalists that one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are disgraceful.”

Has this country indeed gone backwards since the idealist post-liberation years, or in truth was its foreign policy always determined by its apartheid-era struggle loyalties? This begs the question as to how Nelson Mandela approached the Dalai Lama issue. Did he, too, blackball this revered leader of the Tibetan national cause?

Through my research for a new book I was tasked with writing (recently published under the title Jewish Memories of Mandela), I am able to answer that question, and can happily state that answer to be a resounding “no”. In 1996 Mandela, despite intense pressure from the Chinese, not only allowed the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa, but agreed to meet with him.

Guy Lieberman, a local campaigner for Tibetan national rights, was involved in arranging that meeting. Afterwards, he asked the Dalai Lama what his impressions of Mandela were. As he remembers, it went something like this:

“I often meet with extraordinary and special people, spiritual leaders, royalty, Nobel laureates, presidents, world icons. For the most part, the reputation that precedes these people is somewhat exaggerated, creating an atmosphere of greatness around them. Each time I meet these people, I find that their person is in actuality not as large as their reputation. In preparing to meet with Nelson Mandela, I considered that his reputation was in fact the largest in the world. There is no-one greater living on the planet at this time. And in only his case, did I find the person larger than the reputation.”

Historians always need to be sceptical about people’s reputations, especially when they are politicians. Almost invariably, these end up on closer examination having to be significantly qualified. Human beings, even those who achieve genuine greatness, are flawed. Their behaviour, at the public and even more so at the private level, all too often falls short of the kind of high standards their reputations might lead one to expect of them. As the revered world symbol of the Tibetan independence struggle and one of the few international leaders in any way comparable to Mandela in moral stature, the Dalai Lama’s recognition of the truly extraordinary nature of South Africa’s most famous son is therefore well worth dwelling on.

Having said all that, I hope I will be excused for making the following quick punt for Jewish Memories of Mandela. Brought out by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the Umoja Foundation this, in summary, chronicles for the first time the extent to which individual Jewish men and women were involved in Mandela’s life and career. Interwoven into the central narrative are the personal recollections of such individuals (including Tony Leon, Arthur Chaskalson, Helen Suzman, Ali Bacher and Sol Kerzner). These throw much interesting new light on some of the most significant episodes in modern South African history, such as the Treason Trial, the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Liliesleaf Farm police raid and ensuing Rivonia Trial and the long imprisonment of Mandela and other political activists.

For more info on the book and how to obtain it, see the website of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies: http://www.jewishsa.co.za/

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    • Adele

      Please write more often Dave – four months is simply too long to wait. Excellent blog – interesting insight!!

    • Andy

      Point of correction Comrade. The last time Daila Lama was denied visa was under the Motlhanthe Administartion, but not the Mbeki Administartion as i sense you where refereing to him. Please do your research before postin.

    • Andy

      Spelling error with my previous post: Dalai Lama!

    • Siya

      I’d like to know who actually said the government denied him a visa!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Congratulations on your book- is this why you have written so few posts recently?

    • Morena

      South Africa is still struggling to fashion a coherent foreign policy resulting in ad hoc make-as-you-go foreign policy decisions. The very nature of diplomacy is to manage competing interests but always never to the detriment of the country or its image. South Africa must decide whether it supports the people of Tibet and recognise their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama; and must stop pussy-footing around technicalities of “processing the Visa” when it is clear to all and sundry that it is doing no such thing. If South Africa puts its trade relationship with China ahead of considerations of human rights and the struggles of the people of Tibet, it must simply say so. It would be odd though since the country has taken the side of the Palestinians in direct opposite to other powers such as the United States, who support the Israelis. Perhaps the Public Protector might uncover what really went on behind the scenes on the Dalai Lama Visa application debacle

    • George S

      @ Andy

      Good point. Begs the question whether Dave’s research is actually trustworthy. For myself, I have only contempt for the ANC-led government though I, too, revere Mandela for his humility and strength of character so absent in the current crop of misfits.

    • Jean Wright

      @Siya… think about it. Lets put it very simply and practically. If you ask me for food because you are hungry and I leave you on the doorstep for a day or two while I ‘think about it’ would you say I had denied you food?

    • The Critical Cynic

      The current ANC and the ANC that helped overthrow apartheid are poles apart. To think they are one and the same is as ludicrous as believing the current generation of Germans are a bunch of Nazis. This is why so many people believe Dave Harris is actually an Ostrich…

    • Charlotte

      A great article and congratulations on the publication of your book – a legacy to the support and rapport between Mandela and the Jewish people.

      The ANC of today, however, has no relation to Mandela’s ANC. It has merely hijacked the acronym, using it an expedient, wealth-creating vehicle for its leaders and officials. It refutes Madibas’ vision of a non-racist, non-sexist, equal-opportunity South Africa. It is an amoral and immoral government.

      The present ANC has, furthermore, fudged and smudged the meaning of ‘democracy’. It neither listens to – or cares – what the country’s citizens want.
      The debacle of ‘doing nothing’ and not – even now – disclosing its intent regarding the Dalai Lama’s visa, certainly does not reflect the will of the people.

      The delays, dithering, denials and defence of its prevarication regarding the visa, was not only a distressing disappointment for Bishop Tutu, and has not only been denounced by the majority South Africans, but has become an international disgrace.

      Yet the present ANC remains defensive – placing themselves outside and above the law (which they continually try to manipulate) and the will of the people.

      We, as citizens, are unfortunately held to account by world scrutiny and condemnation of the present ANC’s arrogance, ignorance, corruption and wrong-doing.

      It is time for change. And it is in our hands.

      Perhaps Tutu will not have to pray for an end to the ANC.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      It is time for a post on Palestine being admitted to UNESCO, and on this commission in SA – led by Winnie Mandela, Vavi, Kasrils and others.

      Thoughtleader front page is beginning to look as boring as a Facebook site. Nothing current – Greece, Libya etc etc Their list of bloggers includes those who have not written for months, in some cases even years.

      My attitude to the UNESCO situation is to tell “Palestine” to appoint an ambassador – will they be able to do so? Will Hamas appoint or Fatwa (excuse the pun).

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