The Dalai Lama and the New South Africa: Today and in Hindsight

by Ossie Ezeaku

“I have joined my people in the new spirit that moves them today, the spirit that revolts openly and broadly against injustice.”
– Chief Albert Luthuli, ANC President, I952.

Since John Dube’s founding of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912, the organization has prided itself as the champion of the oppressed and the down-trodden. A symbol which was further illuminated by the incarceration of its iconic leaders; Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani and the others.

Given the circumstances that surrounded the birth of the new South Africa, many had expected that issues of especially liberty, would shape and dictate the trajectory of South Africa’s foreign policy.

It would be fair to say that the principles which brought about the liberation of South Africa was at a time the defacto bench-mark with which to measure the efficacy of liberation movements around the globe. A credit that was chiefly the result of ANC’s strategic objective which ensured, among other policies, that pressure was sustained on the white minority government through the co-operation of the international community.

Nations of the then non-aligned movement such as Nigeria provided financial assistance to the ANC. Nigeria, indeed, doled out a lot, making her foot-print on the South African struggle so glaring that she became the no. 1 enemy to the white minority rulers. The late General Murtala Muhammed became equally a hero. His photos were seen adorning the offices of South Africa’s black leaders such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi. On the other hand, moral support was provided by liberation movements around the globe, input that did not exclude those of the Tibetan exile community.

On Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black President, political leaders across the spectrum, left and right, including Dr. Fidel Castro and the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, graced the historic occasion.

Thus, the recent refusal of visa to the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, by the ANC led government of South Africa was an unwitting departure from the political philosophy that has long defined the ANC as a party and a one-time liberation movement. The party seemed to have forgotten its roots.

It would be recalled that the Dalai Lama was invited by a group of Nobel laureates that included Nelson Mandela and F.W Deklerk, to attend a conference that was supposed to show-case the new South Africa’s democracy and achievements, with emphasis on the upcoming 2010 world Cup. The outrage caused by the unexpected denial of visa to the Tibetan leader came as a rude shock to Mandela and the nation in general, so much so that he and F.W Deklerk quickly made their intention to boycott the conference known to the public.

South African government officials later issued a statement defending their action, claiming that an invitation to Dalai lama would hurt the country’s economic ties with China.

Over the past decade, China with its productive power has made in roads into Africa, spreading her tentacles in the areas of manufacturing, mining and technology.
With her current annual exports to Africa reaching over $50 billion, and imports from same at about $48 billion, she has toppled the U.S as Africa’s biggest trading partner. Thus, with the current global melt-down and the state of the U.S economy, it is only natural that African nations were surging towards her.

Having said that, the South African government should have found an honorable way to deal with the Dalai Lama issue than the blunt and hurting treatment meted to such an icon of peace and liberty. The nation is up to the task of having an independent foreign policy, whilst maintaining a vibrant economic tie with whomsoever.

The Tibetan cause is equally compelling. A close watch of video images of protesters in Tibet being brutalized by the Chinese police, would readily remind anyone of the dark days of apartheid in South Africa.

Worthy to note also Is the fact that there have been similar incidences in the past in which international personalities such as the Former Common Wealth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku and Prof. Wole Soyinka were humiliated by the South African immigration. With all these, many would be tempted to conclude that the post apartheid South Africa has developed a penchant to bite the fingers that once fed her plentifully.

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