South Africa's Dalai Lama Visa Denial In Court

China’s trade clout is such that no nation wishes to risk its interests, especially at a time of prolonged global economic recession. That has caught South Africa in a crunch over its trade ties to Beijing and spurred a lawsuit, now being heard in a Capetown court, after the government effectively denied a visa to Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

China is South Africa's biggest trade partner, with exports from Africa's biggest economy reaching US$4.9 billion in the first six months of this year. During a September visit to Beijing by South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, China announced huge investment plans in South Africa’s minerals market, including refineries. China has also orchestrated South Africa's request to join the BRICS, the group of developing giants China, Brazil, India and Russia.

Governments in the past have paid the price for daring to host visits by the Dalai Lama, according to a 46-page paper published in October by economists Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann at the University of Goettingen in Germany, who set out to quantify the effect. World leaders who welcome the Tibetan religious leader face an average 8.1 percent annual loss of exports from their countries to China for up to two years before the "Dalai Lama Effect," as the authors call it, wears off.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party and other civil groups filed the suit in a Capetown high court in early December after the South African government dithered until the Dalai Lama withdrew his visa application in October. The Tibetan Buddhist prelate had sought to visit Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, on Tutu’s 80th birthday.

Lawyers for South Africa’s Home Affairs Department have argued that the minister could take China’s relationship with South Africa into consideration in evaluating the Dalai Lama’s visa application. Home Affairs Director-General Mkuseli Apleni acknowledged in an affidavit before the Cape High Court that the government had considered the country’s multi-million rand trading partnership with China when deciding whether or not to grant the visa.

With no response for the South African mission in New Delhi over his application, the Dalai Lama’s administration in Dharamsala responded on Oct. 4: “Since the South African government seems to find it inconvenient to issue a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness has decided to call off this visit.”

Advocate Anton Katz, acting for Buthelezi, argued that the delay in handing out the application amounted to constructive denial and that the court had a sense of duty to determine whether the government had acted lawfully.

“There is a broad consensus here that the Dalai Lama was denied a visa because South Africa wants to maintain economic relations with the PRC,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg. “The debate is between those who reject that as a new form of colonization and those who take a realist view insisting that our development requires that we recognize that China is an economic power and that they will be able to dictate our policy on issues such as Tibet.”

The Dalai Lama’s private office in Dharamsala, India ostensibly has no interest in the South African case. “Since the visa application didn’t pass through, we took back the application and have not been following the matter,” said Tenzin Takhla, a senior aide to the Dalai Lama. However, that is probably ingenuous. The case is being closely watched in other countries both where the Buddhist prelate has been refused visas for economic reasons, and where he has been allowed to visit with adverse effects on trade.

As South Africa faces the legal questions in the Capetown court, it is being watched not only in that country but also other countries as well – including the newly evolving country of Burma. One of the most influential Buddhist monks in the country has expressed increasing keenness to dare the wishes of China in an attempt to bring the Dalai Lama to the country*. However, whether the country, which is a virtual proxy state of China and depends heavily on Chinese investment and diplomatic support, would take the step to anger the Chinese has to be considered unlikely.

The judgment is likely to be handed down in January. It is also expected to have a domestic political impact. South African presidential elections are to be held n 2012, possibility in April. Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, South Africa’s fourth-largest, has invited the Dalai Lama to visit him in 2012.

The story began when the Buddhist prelate was invited by universities and organizations to give public talks although the most important reason was to celebrate Tutu's birthday celebrations and to receive the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Peace and Reconciliation. The refusal has stirred an uproar in South Africa. A recent survey by a marketing company TNS in South Africa suggests that nearly half of respondents believe the Dalai Lama should have been allowed to visit.

“Among those giving an opinion, there is over a two-to-one majority in favor of the Dalai Lama coming to South Africa," said Neil Higgs, the head of innovation at TNS South Africa. The study was done among 2,000 metropolitan respondents into attitudes to various social and political issues in late October and early November.

“A positive ruling for the Dalai Lama would of course send a message about a country’s ability to stand up to Chinese pressure. But in many ways South Africa is an anomaly,” said Elliot Sperling, an associate professor and expert on Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University in the US. “China is increasingly invested in Africa to the point of dominating the economies of several countries. So the South African situation will have little effect, I think, elsewhere in Africa.”

But, Sperling said in an email, a reversal by the court and the grant of a visa to the Dalai Lama “would at least give a symbolic lift to other countries that have to deal with China’s displeasure at visits by the Dalai Lama. Some countries have denied the Dalai Lama visas. (The issue is different in South Africa because Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a personal friend of the Dalai Lama and a symbol of the country’s struggle against apartheid; the denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama is an insult to him.) But for the most part Chinese pressure, when successful, has resulted in no meetings between the Dalai Lama and high-ranking government figures.”

Analyst Anton M. Pillay from the Consultancy Africa Intelligence, a South African-based research and strategy firm says “The South African government’s stance is clear. The Dalai Lama is not welcome. South African civil society and the media have a very cordial relationship and claim to speak for the entire nation, but the fact remains, China is South Africa’s largest trading partner and the poor who constitute the majority of this nation will suffer if China decides to cancel contracts in retaliation. A positive ruling in the case would send a message to the world that there is justice in South Africa, but overall it would be superficial as the bullying power of China is just too strong.”

Lauren Hofmeyer, a South African human rights activist, told local media the government's delaying tactics were unconstitutional during a protest outside the court on Dec. 3. “We are the rainbow nation, so perhaps our little voices can make a big difference, like the mosquito in the bedroom, as the Dalai Lama said.”

*Corrected 23/12/11

(Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India.)