In downtown Cape Town, worshippers gathered Friday for a morning Mass at St. George’s Cathedral. During apartheid, the massive stone church was an epicenter of resistance against the South African government. On Friday, a service was held to honor the man who led that resistance, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
“The Arch,” as he is affectionately known here, is turning 80. But his birthday celebrations, which have included visits from foreign dignitaries and even a serenade from rock star Bono, have largely been overshadowed by the Dalai Lama’s absence. The Tibetan leader is one of Tutu’s closest friends, and news he was not granted a visa sent Tutu into a tirade against the government at a press conference earlier this week.
“It is quite unbelievable, the discourtesy that they have shown,” he said. “This government — our government — is worse than the apartheid government.”
He also issued a stern warning to the country’s ruling political party, the African National Congress.
“I am warning you: One day, we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government,” he said.
The ANC government still hasn’t explained why it did not respond to the Dalai Lama’s visa application. President Jacob Zuma denied obstructing the process, and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said a visa was about to be granted. But Tom Wheeler, a former ambassador who works for the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the government simply didn’t want to anger China.
“There was a concern about what the reaction in China would be,” he said.
China is South Africa’s largest trade partner and an important source of foreign investments. The Chinese government sees the Dalai Lama as an enemy and a leader of the Tibetan separatist movement, and it has publicly discouraged foreign leaders from meeting with him. Wheeler says many of China’s economic partners have ignored China’s warnings and allowed the Dalai Lama to enter their countries, without consequence. And, he says, there are signs that South Africa’s concerns were unfounded.
“We’ve been told by Deputy President Motlanthe that when he visited China last week, the issue was not raised with him. So I think there was perhaps an unjustified concern,” he said.
Now, many South Africans are concerned about the damage that’s been done to their reputation.
“I don’t think that South Africa has done its image in the international community any good,” said Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank focused on human rights and foreign policy. “Are we pandering to the point that it is becoming deeply embarrassing? That we want to bend over backwards to do anything that would please China?”
He says that by choosing economic interests over human rights, the ruling political party has acted against South Africa’s core values, and has done a disservice to those who fought for freedom under apartheid.
“It’s the ruling party that helped lead a struggle to free South Africa and enshrine the values of freedom within the South African Constitution,” he said. “The current leadership of South Africa seems to be doing much to undermine the legacy of some of those great women and men.”
A group of protesters gathers outside St. George’s Cathedral. Greg Andrews holds a large banner that says, “Sorry, Dalai Lama.” He says he was planning to attend the Buddhist leader’s speech.
“I had the privilege of hearing him speak in other places, and obviously it would have been wonderful to hear him here,” he said.
As it turns out, he and others might have the chance to do so. The Dalai Lama is giving his speech as planned through an online video conferencing system. So it seems Archbishop Tutu gets his birthday wish after all.