Ashwini Bhatia, Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG — South African officials may block the Dalai Lama from celebrating the 80th birthday of his friend and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, amid fears that Chinese pressure is trumping the country's much-vaunted policies on freedom of speech and human rights.
South African newspapers are already drawing parallels between the situations of Tibetans under Chinese rule and black South Africans under the racist apartheid regime that ended in 1994. The tensions over the Dalai Lama's visa application also are a sign of how powerful China's influence has grown in Africa.
"Our leadership has a clear choice: to look deep into the African soul and emulate (Nelson) Mandela's actions by extending a hand of friendship, while at the same time understanding that it won't, in fact, have any real impact on our relations with China," said an editorial in the Daily Maverick.
"Or, once again to yield as the people who will submit to the will of another nation, to constrict our spirit and our standing as a moral society, and close our doors on a genuine man of peace and the justified hopes of his people."
The Dalai Lama is to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace lecture, titled "Peace and compassion as catalyst for change," as part of the Oct. 6-8 birthday celebrations for Tutu.
The center that invited the Dalai Lama says he first tried to apply for a visa in June but was told it was too far ahead of his trip. Later South African officials said they couldn't process the visa with a photocopied passport of the Buddhist icon and had to wait for him to submit his original document.
"We've sent letters, following up on a daily basis with phone calls and still are in a situation where there is no response and it's getting us much more anxious," said Nomfundo Wazala, CEO of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre that has invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa. "We have been patient, but we really feel at this point in time we deserve an answer."
The Dalai Lama fled the Himalayan region in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule and is reviled by Beijing as a separatist. China says Tibet has always been part of its territory, but many Tibetans say the region was virtually independent for centuries.
The 76-year-old leader insists he is only seeking increased autonomy for Tibet, not independence. He gave up his political role in the Tibetan exile movement in March, but he remains its spiritual head, beloved by Buddhists around the world.
The Dalai Lama was welcomed to South Africa on his first visit in 1996 and had a memorable visit with the country's first black and democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.
But in 2009, the South African government outraged many by banning the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates' peace conference, saying it would detract attention from the 2010 soccer World Cup.
Tutu, revered for the part he played to end apartheid, called it "disgraceful" and accused the government of "shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure" — a charge officials denied.
A spokesman for South Africa's foreign affairs department, Clayson Monyela, denied there was any pressure to block the Dalai Lama's visit this time around.
He said South African officials had only received a complete visa application on Sept. 20 and it was now being "subjected to the normal visa application processes." The South African High Commission in New Delhi, India, where the application was made, usually issues tourist visas within seven days.
Sonam Tenzing, the Dalai Lama's representative for Africa, disputed the government's account as "totally incorrect." He said the visa application was made on Aug. 29 including a photocopy of the Dalai Lama's passport since he was traveling to Latin America.
Monyela said the application was incomplete until they received the passport itself.
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