Spokesmen for President Kgalema Motlanthe had little explanation for the decision to refuse His Holiness the Dalai Lama a visa to attend the now-canceled peace conference in Johannesburg on Friday.
The best they could come up with was that the conference was World Cup-related, and they didn't want the World Cup to be about Tibet. But anyone who has ever watched a soccer match ---- much less a World Cup match --- knows the chances of that.
What doesn't need to be said is that someone -- most likely Motlanthe himself -- got a visit or call from a Chinese official. And South Africa caved.
Like the Olympics, the 2010 World Cup has the world's attention. It's a great time to make a statement. And as the Olympics were for China, it's a chance for South Africans to showcase who they are, and how far they have come. In this case, it also became a chance for China to step in and force its anti-Dalai Lama message onto the stage.
The problem is, unlike China, it happens to be impossible for South Africa to showcase anything without recognizing human rights. You can't say Nelson Mandela without thinking freedom. You can't say Desmond Tutu without thinking human rights. Not human rights of Africans. Human rights. The rights you have, no matter your country, color, or gender, just because you are human. They are in the very DNA of South Africa.
South Africa would not be what it is today if it weren't for the international activist community standing up for the rights of black South Africans. This same activist community is now staring, stunned, at Motlanthe.
Tellingly, Tibet was never an issue connected to the World Cup. I've been in touch with people lining up programs around the 2012 World Cup, and they are focused on violence against women, benefits for UNICEF, and issues relevant to Africa. Had the Dalai Lama come and gone from the peace conference, it might have been the last mention of him or Tibet in the press around the World Cup.
The only thing that made it an issue at all was China seeing an opportunity to throw its weight around and use a peace conference to make an anti-Dalai Lama statement. If anything is being showcased now, it's the Chinese influence over individuals in the South African government, and their ability to corrupt with economics.
I have had the opportunity of corresponding with Archbishop Tutu this week. TheCommunity.com has published a letter from him about the Dalai Lama, and people have been adding their names in support of his message.
The irony of this happening over a peace conference full of Nobel Laureates and the Nobel Committee was not lost on Archbishop Tutu. He wrote: "How could we possibly sit in a room talking about peace while ignoring such rotten treatment of one of our own?"
"China leans on other governments to disrespect the Dalai Lama and ignore their repression of the Tibetans. If they're successful, they make our leaders look like fools or hypocrites."
"The Dalai Lama is not a politician. He is a holy man. He is a precious gift to us. When government officials are told to disrespect him 'or else', they should consider it an insult. They should object, and keep their dignity intact."
The Archbishop was heartened by the signatures on his letter, which asks China to stop "naming, blaming and defaming the Dalai Lama". Signatories have included nine other Nobel Laureates, notables including Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Jeff Skoll, Peter Gabriel and others.
In a message to those who are adding their names to the letter, he said, "It's a joyful thing, to turn around and see you --- people from all countries, from all walks of life, who are willing to step forward, put their name down, and say "wait a minute, I object to this mistreatment!
"It lets me know, once again, that good will ultimately prevail in this world."
The letter is still open for signature at www.thecommunity.com.
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