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Sat Nov 01 14:38:27 SAST 2014

In Washington and Pretoria, the elite dance to a distant piper

Mondli Makhanya | 09 October, 2011 01:19
Mondli Makhanya
Image by: Sunday Times

The decision to deny the Dalai Lama a visa had little to do with SA-China relations

Two nations. Thousands of kilometres apart. Same dilemma. They are beholden to interests they should not be beholden to.

The US is a world superpower and it dances to the tune of Israel - a brutal state that has become a poster boy of injustice. South Africa is a continental superpower and it dances to the tune of China, the poster boy of modern-day colonialism.

The two countries found themselves on the dance floor this week as their masters played the flute.

To the relief of many who were tired of endless Julius Malema headlines, this week's news was dominated by South Africa's refusal to let a tame and timid-looking Tibetan monk into the country. What must rank as one of the clumsiest public relations exercises in recent history was characterised by buck-passing, denial, doublespeak.

I must admit I am no great fan of the Dalai Lama. Not because of his political cause, which is justified and deserves the support of all justice-loving humans. My aversion is because his bright robes remind me of Tony Yengeni's eyesore jackets. But that is beside the point.

The thing here is that the Dalai Lama fiasco seriously undermined South Africa's dignity. As happened in 2009 when he was due to attend an anti-racism conference in this country, the government offered nonsensical excuses for denying him a visa.

This is the twak that then interim president Kgalema Motlanthe's spokesman, Thabo Masebe, uttered in 2009: "We in the South African government have not invited the Dalai Lama to visit SA, because it would not be in the interests of SA. The attention of the world is on SA because of it being the host country for the 2010 World Cup, and we wouldn't want anything to distract from that."

This week Motlanthe, now deputy president, claimed that the Dalai Lama had not filled in the visa forms correctly. Or some such claptrap.

At least he was a notch better than the giggling president, who on Monday said he shouldn't even be asked about the biggest story of the week.

"The Department of International Relations and Cooperation is dealing with it. I don't know what will be the final thing. I don't think that you can get a definite answer from me ... I don't know whether I should answer this question, because there are departments that are dealing with. How do I know?"

Well, South Africans have come to accept that their president does not know much about anything, so that last sentence was the final confirmation from the man himself that we should not bother seeking answers about anything from him.

But again, that is beside the point.

No matter how much the president, his deputy, ministers and officials try to spin this thing, the fact is that the government was afraid that we would offend China if we let the monk into the country.

As was pointed out by analysts and foreign affairs experts this week, we need not fear China. As powerful as the superpower is, it will not suddenly break off strategic and political and economic relations with Africa's most powerful country simply because we let a brightly dressed priest through OR Tambo International. China would have sent a strong démarche to Pretoria and withdrawn its ambassador for a few weeks. So it was more likely that, just like in 2009, the decision had little to do with South Africa's interests. It was more about the ANC's political and financial relations with China's ruling elite.

By succumbing to pressure before it was even applied, we were saying that we are willing to be treated like a featherweight division country like Malawi.

Across the Atlantic, US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice led a walk-out of the UN in protest at the decision by other members to veto a resolution condemning the Syrian government's war on its people and the depiction of its unflinching support for Israel as backing genocide.

Rice said the US was "outraged" that the Security Council had "utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge".

Very rich, coming from a country that has over the decades vetoed many resolutions addressing the urgent moral challenge that is the Israeli state's oppression and brutalisation of Palestinians.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors on either side of the divide, is acutely aware of the power of the US pro-Israel lobby and its ability to influence political longevity. Hence the inability to take a principled stance that would enhance the prospects of ending that conflict, ensure a just neighbourly existence for Israelis and Palestinians and improve world security.

What the actions of the US and South African governments showed this week was that foreign policy is more about the self-preservation of elites than about principle and what is good for the country.

As for South Africa bending over forwards for China, we should never do that to ourselves again.

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