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We must stand up to China

Sunday Times Editorial | 2011-10-02 00:57:25.0
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. File photo.
Image by: B MATHUR / REUTERS

Sunday Times Editorial: One cannot blame Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for being pessimistic about the Dalai Lama being able to attend his 80th-birthday celebrations next weekend.

The government has dithered for weeks over the Tibetan spiritual leader's visa application, leading to suspicion that Pretoria has once again been put under immense pressure by China not to allow the Dalai Lama to visit.

Similar pressure from Beijing in 2009 caused the South African authorities to deny the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a soccer World Cup-related international peace conference that was to be held in Johannesburg.

The government, headed at the time by president Kgalema Motlanthe, feared that granting a visa to the spiritual leader during March - a significant month in the Tibetan struggle against Chinese rule - would jeopardise South Africa's relations with one of its largest trading partners.

As the world's second-largest economy - which is tipped to overtake the US in the number one spot over the next decade - China is obviously strategically important to South Africa.

The Asian economic giant provides a massive potential market for South African goods and can boost the country's exports and stimulate economic growth.

But this does not mean that South Africa has to kowtow to Beijing's whims to the point where it compromises its sovereignty.

As much as we need trade with China and other growing economies if South Africa is to proper, they, too, need South Africa for its resources and because of its strategic position as the entry point to the African continent.

Yes, China might protest against a government decision to grant the spiritual leader a visa, but that does not mean that it would withdraw investment from South Africa and turn its back on our mineral resources, which it desperately needs.

By dithering on the Dalai Lama visa issue, President Jacob Zuma is missing a great opportunity to make a crucial statement to China to the effect that we may be a smaller economy and a relatively junior player in world affairs, but we are not the tail of China's dog. Beijing should respect South Africa's right to decide whom it allows to visit the country.

If South Africa is to play the leadership role it has set for itself on the continent, it will have to be more courageous in dealing with superpowers such as China.

If our government cannot stand up for its sovereign right to allow a spiritual leader to enter the country for the harmless purpose of attending a friend's birthday party, how can it be trusted to take on China and other superpowers on more contentious issues such as the exploitation of the continent's mineral resources without much benefit for its largely poor population?

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