Dalai Drama

Oct 03, 11 Dalai Drama

The hand-wringing delays on securing a South African visa for the Dalai Lama has drawn sharp criticism from several principled circles, invoking impromptu vigils outside parliament and banner-clad protests demanding his approval forthwith. And if principles were the only deciding factor in accepting the Dalai Lama’s application I would agree fully. But they’re not, and the South African government would be foolish to think otherwise.

Instead they are faced with a three-pronged problem here. Firstly, the principles of our constitution demand that an innocent citizen of another country should be allowed into South Africa, barring any criminal or diplomatic issues, secondly is the diplomatic relations-cost which will be incurred, and finally the economic consequences which could be brought to bear.

He is one man; he wants to come to South Africa. It should not be an issue. But that diplomatic issue is a large one, and cannot be ignored based on the implicit holiness of moral imperative. If we allow the Dalai Lama into SA, we will suffer a negative political cost with or relations with China. Tibet has zero political and economic utility to South Africa. Absolutely nothing of notable worth goes to Tibet or comes from it, excepting perhaps a bevy of ‘enlightened’ backpackers returning from the mountainous region, brimful with spirituality and righteousness. But in terms of putting food on the tables of South Africans, it does nothing. The government would be foolish to heedlessly approve a visa for the Dalai Lama in the face of an understandable outrage by the Chinese government.

Aside from the fact that they are our biggest trade partner now, we just had a delegation in China securing business and trade deals which will be of benefit to both countries. Allowing the Dalai Lama entry into our country would give the Chinese an excuse to reconsider any of these negotiated deals which may seem unpalatable under a new, less diplomatically-rosy light.

The government cannot blithely ignore such larger issues for the sake of principles. It sounds understandably callous to argue that we should simply disregard them for a quick buck, and I would normally agree. But this is not a second-rate trade partner we’re dealing with. This is China, our #1 economically. Letting him in without first getting tacit approval from the Chinese foreign ministry would be as disastrous as allowing Taiwanese embassy in Pretoria.

So to the hordes of well-minded folks attending the vigils and protests and whatnot, I applaude your moral stance, but I question your ability to discern what our country’s best interests are. All I can say is to put yourself in the government’s shoes and have an appreciation of the political difficulty this is putting us in. Allowing the Dalai Lama in would not. Well. Not unless the Chinese said we could. Then it is alright. Just this once.

Image by vipeldo

  • I agree. The ones who harp about “doing the right thing” are the ones who aren’t in a position to make any diplomatic decisions. It’s easy to flaunt our moral compass when we’re standing on the sidelines because the only things we have to consider are the moral implications. China is very sensitive when it comes to the Dalai Lama. We would be naive to think China wouldn’t respond accordingly if we were to snub them in favour of the Dalai Lama.

    For example, when the Olympic torch relay was disrupted in Paris by a group of pro-tibet protesters, China’s reaction was to boycott all Carrefour outlets, one of the largest French supermarket chains. To put that into perspective, that’s a loss of 2 million customers per day. In the end, the executive chairman had to issue a public statement saying Carrefour does not support the Dalai Lama.

    SA has no bargaining power when it comes to dealings with China. Angering them won’t do us any favours.