South Africa, the ANC and this point in space/Dalai/Lama/time/continuum

By Carien Du Plessis 7 October 2011

Opinions in the ruling alliance on the non-visit of the Dalai Lama vary from the ridiculous to the fairly reasonable, and although the mixed feelings explain the dithering on the decision to grant him a visa, the alliance is unlikely to split over this issue. CARIEN DU PLESSIS reports.

Cosatu on Thursday issued a statement on the Dalai Lama that most reasonable people would agree with. It goes roughly like this: the government messed up by using “bureaucratic red tape” to bar the Dalai Lama from attending Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday party and not explaining its real reasons (which might have been perfectly understandable) to the public. Cosatu went on to say although the Dalai Lama is no angel, it would have been nice to have him over here to explain his “rather contradictory politics” and fight for Tibetan self-determination to South Africans first-hand.

Examples of this dodgy politics, according to Cosatu, include his acceptance of accolades from Israel’s Ben Gurion University, defying the campaign for the boycott of “apartheid Israel”, as well as his initial support for the invasion of Iraq.

These raise “serious questions about the Dalai Lama’s moral compass”, Cosatu said in its statement.

The statement is an improvement from the labour federation’s general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s non-answer the day before, when he was phoned. He promised to call back later, but never did. The spin doctors were probably still writing the statement, which is almost two pages long.

At least it’s something. The SACP and the usually outspoken ANC Youth League issued no statements at all, and SACP spokesman Malesela Maleka copped out of giving the party’s position on the matter by saying the Dalai Lama had cancelled his visit and the matter was thereby resolved.

The non-granting of the visa was in line with the ANC’s policy which recognises only one China – meaning that the party does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state (South Africa severed ties with Taiwan in 1998) or support Tibet’s quest for independence, which the Dalai Lama is spearheading.

Although the Dalai Lama had visited South Africa three times between 1996 and 2004, meeting with former president Nelson Mandela, who withstood pressure from China to do so (Thabo Mbeki was controversially “too busy” to meet with His Holiness in 1999), South Africa had stepped up trade with China since then. This means that South Africa is bound by conditions in bilateral agreements with China, or at best afraid of annoying the economic giant.

Either way, ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu this week said the ANC hoped that the Department of International Relations and Cooperation would take the party and the country into its confidence, and explain the government’s stance towards the Dalai Lama.

Head of the ANC’s committee on international matters, deputy international relations minister Ebrahim Ebrahim, said the ANC had had no discussions on the matter yet, but the issue was likely to come up at the next meeting of the party’s national executive committee.

“If the committee meets, there might be some request to discuss it, but the matter will probably be handled by the secretary-general (Gwede Mantashe),” Ebrahim said. “But the ANC mainly deals with party to party relations. It is not within the ambit of the ANC to deal with the issue of visas,” he said.

Some in the ANC are likely to agree with Cosatu’s stance on the matter. The Dalai Lama’s cancellation of his visit on Tuesday after two weeks of no news on his visa application, also made speaking out about it much easier.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said, after the fact, that the government would have granted the visa, but he backed off later in the day when the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust then called his bluff by asking Motlanthe to consider granting the leader a last-minute visa, saying the deputy president’s office didn’t deal with visas.

Housing minister Tokyo Sexwale also made an effort to communicate about the matter, although this was probably not entirely the plan. He was drawn into commenting during interviews about other topics (Julius Malema’s disciplinary and housing, respectively) on eNews and Talk Radio 702, saying it was “unfortunate” the visa debacle had happened the way it did because Tutu was someone he loved and respected.

President Jacob Zuma, asked about the matter on Monday, before the Dalai Lama cancelled his visit, remained suitably non-committal, saying the matter was in the hands of the Department of International Relations.

Former minister Barbara Hogan and her husband, struggle stalwart and former Robben Islander Ahmed Kathrada, didn’t hold back in blasting the government over the matter. Hogan, who was health minister at the time, also criticised government in 2009 for refusing the Dalai Lama entry into the country, and she and Kathrada might represent some of the party’s old guard from the Mandela generation.

On Wednesday they issued a statement in favour of a group that marched at the Witwatersrand University to protest against the government’s delay in the granting of the visa.

The couple called the delay a “brazen insult” directed at the Dalai Lama and Tutu. “We are further deeply embarrassed and angered by the inept and unprincipled attempts to justify the delay in granting a visa on bureaucratic grounds. This hints at cowardice and deceit of the worst kind,” they said.

They added that people like Tutu was a “giant” of the struggle and “should never, ever be treated with the shocking disrespect that is now accorded him by our government”.

While they were in Cape Town and unable to join the protest, they called “on all freedom-loving South Africans to now stand up and say loudly and clearly: NOT IN MY NAME!”

Department of International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela made an effort to explain in a statement (which he recalled and then reissued a few minutes later) that the visa wasn’t granted because the Dalai Lama cancelled his trip. Yeah, right.

Monyela said “our foreign policy is independent and decisions are made based on our domestic interests”.

Some in the ANC probably have mixed feelings on the matter. In their hearts, they still espousing the Mandela-era ideals of freedom of movement and association, despite what foreign superpowers might say, but in their heads they know that China was worth its weight in platinum to the South African economy.

China regards the Dalai Lama as a bit of a terrorist, because of his political activities, chief among which is his fight for the independence of Tibet, which was occupied by the Chinese more than 50 years ago.

The bungle led to an enraged Tutu on Tuesday saying he prayed for the downfall of the government. “Hey Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests,” he said.

The next day he seems to soften his stance a bit, telling Talk Radio 702 that his reaction was that of a “sad old man”.

Meanwhile, the ANC demonstrated that it had nothing better to do than react to reactions to the government’s Dalai Lama visa bungle. First it reacted to Tutu’s rant, instead of explaining its stance on Tibet to us, and then on Thursday to writer and columnist Max du Preez’s rant on Facebook, where he mused about the Malay-Portuguese origins of the Afrikaans word “maaifoedie” (a mild translation of “motherfucker”) before calling ANC leaders that. All in relation to the Dalai Lama debacle, of course.

The party’s Jackson Mthembu said this “casts a shadow over his reputation” and that he should apologise to South Africans, but Du Preez in turn questioned the ANC’s sanity.

“The ANC really thinks the people of SA are complete imbeciles,” he hit back.

The ANC’s tetchiness about this matter following the noise from civil society reminds of the recent fight over the Protection of Information Bill, which the ANC stopped from being passed at the last minute to consult some more.

This time, however, the deadline was missed, and the things that came undone cannot become done. The Dalai Lama will miss a birthday party, trade with China will continue, and the ANC’s leadership might briefly debate it at its next meeting before moving on to matters of more import in its own world – such as who should rule the ANC roost after Mangaung next year, and how to deal with roaring lion cubs. DM

Read more:

  • Going off pop about religious pop idols, in Daily Maverick;
  • Tutu’s outburst a political turning point? By Max du Preez on News24;
  • South Africa, hang your head in shame over Dalai Lama in Daily Maverick;
  • The Dalai Lama: an alternative opinion in Daily Maverick;
  • The Dalai Lama doesn’t pay the bills in Daily Maverick.



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