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.
Late Monday, frustrated officials released three letters written by the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust chairman, Dumisa Ntsebeza, to the deputy minister of international relations, Ebrahim I. Ebrahim — all of which they said have gone unanswered.
One dated Sept. 7 says the Dalai Lama first tried to apply for a visa in June, when he was told he should reapply nearer the time. When an attempt was made in July, it said the South African High Commission refused to accept the application, saying it needed "clearance from (officials in) Pretoria."
It said Tutu and his representatives have approached a number of senior government members "but nobody seemed willing to engage the matter" even after Ntsebeza discussed it with President Jacob Zuma.
"Neither Archbishop Tutu nor the Peace Centre is insensitive to the challenges government may face from China ..." the letter says.
South African officials may be especially squeamish following Beijing's furious response to Mexico's President Felipe Calderon meeting the Dalai Lama earlier this month.
The meeting "grossly interfered with China's internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and harmed Chinese-Mexican relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.
China was equally strident when U.S. President Barack Obama received the Dalai Lama at the White House in July, ignoring Chinese warnings.
"We demand the U.S. side seriously consider China's stance, immediately adopt measures to wipe out the baneful impact, stop interfering in China's internal affairs and cease to connive and support anti-China separatist forces that seek 'Tibetan independence,'" Ma said at the time.
China-Africa expert Martyn Davies said China's concern seemed to be over meetings with high-ranking officials.
"If the Dalai Lama does come to South Africa, I do not see any reason for the Dalai Lama to meet with President Zuma or any other South African government official. He is a religious figure but with an overly politicized persona," Davies said by email from Beijing.
In March 2009, Zuma said the real problem was the timing of the Dalai Lama's visit — the 50th anniversary of the Buddhist leader's flight into exile. Zuma became president of South Africa soon after.
"Well, Zuma is now in charge of the government, the Dalai Lama has been invited again, and this time the invitation is not for March but for October. So what about it, Mr. President?" the Daily News asked.