S. Africa says Dalai Lama not welcome before 2010

Organizers said earlier that a peace conference scheduled in Johannesburg on Friday has been indefinitely postponed.

JOHANNESBURG (AP) âÄî The South African government said Tuesday that the Dalai Lama is not welcome until after the 2010 football World Cup, for fear tensions over Tibet would overshadow all other issues at a time when South Africa wants to focus on hosting the major international event. Organizers said earlier that a peace conference scheduled in Johannesburg on Friday has been indefinitely postponed because the government had barred attendance by the Tibetan leader, who has clashed with China. Tibet’s government-in-exile said South Africa was acting under pressure from China, but South Africa’s government denied it. South Africa is China’s largest African trading partner. Organizers said they hoped to hold the event when the Dalai Lama could attend, and that they hoped that would be before the World Cup. Asked by reporters whether the Tibetan Nobel peace laureate would be issued a visa before the sporting event, Thabo Masebe, spokesman for President Kgalema Motlanthe, said: “No, we won’t.” He said he did not want a visit to be a distraction at a time when South Africa was hoping to showcase its transformation from pariah state to international role model. “You can’t remove Tibet from” the Dalai Lama, Masebe said. “That becomes the issue and South Africa is no longer the issue.” Masebe had said a day earlier South Africa would not allow the Dalai Lama to visit for the peace conference, citing South Africa’s ties to China and generating sharp criticism of South Africa. Fellow Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as members of the Nobel Committee pulled out of the conference in response. Friday’s conference had been meant to highlight ways football can promote peace, and all Nobel peace laureates had been invited, along with world statesmen and Hollywood celebrities. Irvin Khoza, who is chairman of the South African World Cup organizing committee and whose professional football league was promoting the conference, told reporters Tuesday that the conference has been postponed indefinitely “as result of the controversy surrounding the participation of his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.” He said he could not say when the conference would be held, but hoped it would be before the World Cup. Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson and a member of the conference organizing committee, said he wanted the Dalai Lama there when the conference is held. Barring a leader of the Dalai Lama’s stature, the younger Mandela said, “is really worrying and saddening. Where are we headed in the future?” “I don’t think as a sovereign country we need to succumb to international pressures,” he added, referring to criticism South Africa acted to placate China. Government spokesman Masebe has insisted, though, that South Africa did not act under pressure. Masebe also has said the Dalai Lama has been welcome in the past and would be allowed back one day. Thupten Samphel, official spokesman of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India said it was clear to him that “South Africa is acting under pressure” from China. Sonam Tenzing, the Tibetan government-in-exile’s representative in South Africa, said this was the first time any government had barred the Dalai Lama. Whatever had changed in Pretoria’s thinking since the Dalai Lama’s last visit, in 2004, “I’m sure the relationship between the people of South Africa and the people of Tibet hasn’t changed. “The people of Tibet draw inspiration from the people of South Africa. The people of Tibet look up to the people of South Africa who gained freedom in 1994,” Tenzing said. Beijing, an ally when South Africa’s now-governing African National Congress was a liberation movement, has diplomatic ties with Pretoria stretching back a decade and an economic relationship based on trade as well as aid. China has been building ties across Africa in recent years. Its total exports to Africa last year rose 36.3 percent from 2007 to $50.8 billion, while imports of African goods rose 54 percent to $56 billion, according to customs data reported by Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, in February. Critics say China’s investment in and aid to Africa is meant only to secure access to the continent’s natural resources. China also is accused of being willing to do business with dictators to get what it wants. African governments, though, laud China for giving aid without the strings Westerners often attach, and are counting on China standing by them amid the global economic meltdown. In Beijing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang portrayed South Africa’s stance on the Dalai Lama as in line with China’s contention that Tibetan Buddhism’s top cleric was pursuing independence for his homeland. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, nine years after communist troops occupied the region. “The Dalai Lama is not simply a religious figure but a political exile long engaged in separatist activity under the pretext of religion,” Qin told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference. China is “resolutely opposed” to any country providing the Dalai Lama with a forum, Qin said. China has ratcheted up condemnation on the Dalai Lama to coincide with this month’s 50th anniversary of the 1959 rebellion. China claims Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, although many Tibetans say they were functionally independent for much of that time and accuse Beijing of eroding their traditional Buddhist culture.