The Dalai Lama and South African Independence

Since early September the potential visit of the Dalai Lama to South Africa has stoked inward reflection as to Pretoria’s relationship with Beijing. Since the Tibetan leader’s visa was turned down, his disappointed host Desmond Tutu has been heavily critical of the ANC regime, and its disconnection with the values that formed the rainbow nation. He feels as though South Africa’s history of oppression garners the country with a responsibility to speak out against the subjugation of Tibet, despite economic cost.

Zuma’s response to this South African soul searching was telling. Defending his foreign policy stance he said, “Let me state categorically that our foreign policy is independent and decisions are informed by the national interest”. While this statement deflects claims that China is making decisions for South Africa, it also tacitly admits that decisions are made based on pragmatism rather than idealism. The decision to bar the Dalai Lama is in South Africa’s direct national interest, as the alternative would certainly result in economic repercussions. By adhering to the ‘one China policy’ Zuma will likely protect South Africa from economic hardship associated with shunning China, but as Archbishop Tutu has so vehemently argued, he has also betrayed the values through which the country was formed.

The official reason given for the rejection by the South African foreign ministry was that the visa process was delayed by problems with the timing and completeness of the application. In reality this decision was made a great deal earlier. While it may never have been discussed between Chinese and South African leaders, the $2.5-billion investment agreement between China and South Africa in September, undoubtedly affected the decision indirectly. These very large investments seem to have proved too tempting to risk any offence. In the context of South Africa’s emergence as a BRICS member, and an impending recession in the western world, South Africa is wise to align itself with the developing powers.

A recent research paper by Fuchs and Klann, Paying a Visit: The ‘Dalai Lama Effect’ on International Trade, found that in the year after a meeting between head of a state or government and the Dalai Lama, exports to China drop by an average of 8.1% or 16.9% (depending on the estimation technique used). It seems like this position is unlikely to change if the Chinese Communist Party’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping, comes into power. In July he spoke publically of his intention to take hard line with separatist Tibetan groups, associated with the Dalai Lama.

For Zuma this policy may have been more dangerous than he thought. While in pure economic terms the decision to refuse a visa for a birthday party in order to protect a trading relationship with a key economic partner is rational, the ANC leadership is suffering a crisis in its connection with ordinary South Africans. This disconnect is both expressed and exaggerated through the rise of Julius Malema. Malema has appealed to disgruntled poor South Africans who have not witnessed the realisation of the grand promises made post-Apartheid, and who have grown weary of perceived corruption and detachment in the political elite. Countries do maintain relations with the Dalai Lama and retain relations with China. Both the USA and France have done recently, although not without some cost. For South Africa to make the same move would be brave, but also perhaps necessary for a government which has become depressingly detached from its ideals.

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