Concerning the small matter of the second failed attempt by the Dalai Lama to get a visa into South Africa in as many years, let us begin by giving the South African government the benefit of the doubt. Notice how I have carefully constructed the preceding sentence along the lines suggested and hinted at by several government spokespersons? You see, according to government, it is not so much that the government refuses to give the Dalai Lama a visa; rather it is the Dalai Lama who has failed to get it. Do you get it? While the government was still considering the application, didn’t the Dalai Lama cancel his trip?

Even if the government had actually refused him the visa, is that not its prerogative? Admittedly it is kind of sad, but there is nothing special or unique about the Dalai Lama’s growing tendency to frequently fail in his attempts to obtain a South African visa. Thousands of other blokes fail the same test every day. The words and actions of government shall not be taken out of context. The gun shall not be jumped. And we should not be emotional about this. OK?

How I would love to carefully examine the words of government on this matter — if I could find them. And this is at the heart of the current national frustration. This is why so many South Africans feel disrespected. Government has not even bothered to provide any words to explain or clarify anything. The unspoken message is “for your own good, we cannot tell you the truth”! International Relations and Cooperation Minister Nkoana-Mashabane did say a week or so ago that the Dalai Lama should apply — like everybody else — and once the application was received it would be processed like any other. The message was that people should be patient. Various pieces of brief, incoherent, ineffectual words have come from the mouths of various government spokespersons — saying little and meaning even less.

Not much more light has been shed or shared even after the Lama put us all out of our misery by withdrawing voluntarily. I suppose the Lama is liable to being accused of jumping the gun by cancelling the trip prematurely. I heard two cabinet ministers being interviewed on TV. All they could say was “please be patient, your call will be answered”. They also referred all questions to the ministry of international relations — poor ministry, poor minister!

The ANC spokesperson sang the same chorus. But he went further. He accused Tutu of jumping the gun and of mistakenly comparing the apartheid government with the popular and democratic government of the ANC. The spokesperson also said that we must not speculate about foreign policy or China and Tibet as having anything to do with a visa not granted to the Lama. We must just wait, he said. And so we wait. And wait. And wait in this desert devoid of explanations.

The clearest, most honest and most human spoken statement on the matter has come from Desmond Tutu. Yet there is a sense in which the government has spoken clearly through its silence. Through the many incoherent, ineffectual and economical statements, much more has been said than meets the eye. One area in which this government has spoken clearly and openly is in the area of action. Two years ago when Tutu and his friends attempted to smuggle the Lama into the country, government stepped in and denied him the visa, putting paid to that attempt. They wanted to prevent the hijacking of the Fifa World Cup event by the Dalai Lama, said a few brave ones among government representatives. At that time, one minister — Barbara Hogan — went too far and actually condemned government. She has since been gently and quietly retired.

Enough fudging and fibbing! Remember the stuff we have been told not to speculate about? Remember the things said to have nothing to do with the refusal of the visa — insignificant issues like the oppression of the people of Tibet? Irrelevant matters like the branding of the Dalai Lama — not as a spiritual leader but as a separatist — by China? Remember the issues of current and future trade between South Africa and China? These very issues are the precise and concrete clues to the astounding behaviour of the democratic South African government, in refusing the Dalai Lama an entry visa twice in 24 months. Clearly the government has done its calculations, assisted with the necessary prompts and nudges from China and decided that it would be unwise to allow the Dalai Lama in.

The real reasons behind the refusal or delay must indeed be sought in the forest of South Africa’s relations with China. In this regard, Tutu cannot take it personally — in the most private sense of the word, that is. The intention of the government is not to spoil his birthday party even if the effect of the government’s decision will be the spoiling of his birthday party. Current and future trade commitments and expectations with China are clearly at the heart of government decisions. But as a citizen of this country we have every right to be angry and demand an explanation.

Until now many would have assumed that not to allow the Dalai Lama into South Africa would clearly and only be in China’s national interest. After all, in some ways, the Dalai Lama to China (despite his recent retirement from politics) is what Desmond Tutu was to the apartheid government. Naturally, China will do everything in its power to deny the Dalai Lama any important space and any hallowed platform from which he may promote the cause of Tibet. This visa denial is nothing but a slap in the face of the people of Tibet.

From the South African perspective, there are real issues with which people are struggling with and angry about. Chief among these is in what ways is it in the national interest of South Africa to prevent the Dalai Lama from coming? Some “national interests” may be messy and disagreeable by they will still wonder why their government is not trusting them with a full and genuine explanation. Perhaps China will enable the government to deliver the millions of jobs they promised voters in the last election. Perhaps China is the silver bullet which will awaken the economic giant that is South Africa, help us eschew nationalisation, put an end to poverty and assist the country to avoid Tunisia-like riots. Maybe China will fund the upcoming elections. Who knows?

What exactly is South Africa’s national interest that would be put at risk by giving a visa to a man whose main claim to fame emanates from advocating non-violence and asking for the political independence of his people? Admittedly he is also imperfect — so one assumes he must have made some mistakes in the past. But is that what makes him effectively a persona non grata in South Africa?

The danger exists that the South African government, in pursuit of national interests as defined by itself, may be slowly drifting away from its citizens. This is the danger Tutu was highlighting when he warned that one day when the feelings of alienation between citizens and government reach boiling point, South Africans might start praying for the downfall of the African National Congress.

Is the South African government happy now that we have managed to keep the Dalai Lama out for a second time in as many years? Is China happy now?

One hopes the South African government is genuinely satisfied. China must be ecstatic. But I do not think China’s respect for the South African government and its people has been enhanced much — trade partnership relations or no trade partnership relations.


  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.


Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination...

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