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South Africa at the centre of a moral leadership uproar

South African Nobel Prize Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses media representatives after the Dalai Lama announced that he will not travel to South Africa, to attend Archbishop Tutu's 80th birthday party, on October 4, 2011 in Cape Town.

AFP/Getty Images/RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images/RODGER BOSCH

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Nelson Mandela is still alive at the age of 93, but is his political epoch finally dead and buried? That's the question many South Africans are asking today in the aftermath of their government's repeated refusal to permit the Dalai Lama to make a private visit to the country.

When Mr. Mandela became the first president of a liberated South Africa in 1994, his country was hailed as a moral beacon for the world, an inspiration for freedom movements everywhere. Yet today that optimism has vanished in an uproar of controversy over the timorous and fearful decisions of Mr. Mandela's political party, the African National Congress.

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Twelve years after Mr. Mandela's retirement, the ANC is still the ruling party in South Africa. It refuses to say why its government declined to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama, but the reason is obvious: the growing links between the ANC and the Chinese Communist Party, and the government's growing dependence on Chinese trade and investment.

Back in 1996, when Mr. Mandela was president, the Tibetan spiritual leader was allowed to visit South Africa, and he was permitted to meet Mr. Mandela, despite heavy pressure from the Chinese government.

But since 2009, in two separate cases, the ANC government has been unwilling to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama – not even for a private visit, and not even when he was invited to attend this week's birthday celebrations for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whose 80th birthday is on Friday.

The controversy has dominated the front pages of South Africa's newspapers this week, sparking a debate about the decline in South Africa's moral leadership. Many commentators noted that South Africa has shown the same kind of silence and timidity at the United Nations this year – supporting Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, for example, and refusing to recognize the Libyan rebels until long after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime.

This week, when the UN Security Council voted on whether to authorize sanctions against Syria for its atrocities against civilians, South Africa quietly abstained.

Archbishop Tutu, who fought against apartheid with Nelson Mandela, was stunned by the government's refusal to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama. The decision was "disgraceful," he said this week, visibly angry. "Our government is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it from the apartheid government."

Addressing the government directly, he wagged his finger and said: "I am warning you, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are behaving in a way that is totally against the things for which we stood. I am warning you that we will pray as we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government."

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In response, the ANC issued a lengthy statement, urging Archbishop Tutu to "calm down" and telling him that his words were "unfortunate and totally misplaced."

Nowhere in the statement, however, did the ANC attempt to explain why the Dalai Lama is not permitted to visit South Africa. The country is still waiting for an explanation.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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