Dalai Lama, Tutu: why are Zuma, South Africa more intimidated by China than Sata, Zambia?

Oct 4, 2011

Tibet's Dalai Lama is not going to attend his pal South African Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday after all this week. After waiting for months with no news on his visa application, he saved a tiny bit of his pride by announcing that he was calling off his visit, several days after he would have begun it. China's strong disapproval of such a visit was expected, but what is surprising is the apparent weakness of the South African government to stave off foreign pressure. This seems even more apparent in light of recently elected Zambian president Michael Sata being willing to criticize Chinese business practices in his country despite its heavy reliance on Chinese investment. Where is South Africa's foreign policy backbone?

By many measures South Africa should have been able to effortlessly project itself as a diplomatic power and leader in and for Africa. It has a strong economy, a relatively large population and generally enjoys a good name/image and much goodwill. Yet this relative giant seems to really struggle to provide continental leadership and to project itself and be regarded as a diplomatic powerhouse.

The recent upheavals in Ivory Coast and Libya were both diplomatic embarrassments for South Africa and president Jacob Zuma. It was hard to know exactly where South Africa stood on Ivory Coast, and clearly the eventual and current of government of Allassane Ouattara that resulted thought Zuma's administration was partial to then defacto, now deposed president Laurent Gbagbo. But what most stick out was the lack of clarity on exactly what South Africa's position on the Ivorian conflict was.

Then there followed the Libyan debacle. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, South Africa went along with the resolution to allow NATO to militarily 'protect civilians' against the claimed risk of imminent bombing by then ruling despot Muammar Gaddafi. But South Africa was left with particular egg on its face when it soon became clear that the idea of the western countries from the start was actually to 'regime change' Gaddafi. As despotic as he might have been, South Africa had clearly been roped in to support foreign military action against him under false pretenses.

Then Zuma undertook a frantic round of attempted diplomatic interventions in Libya under African Union auspicies, to try to provide a peaceful, negotiated alternative to the West's bombing campaign. That only seemed to deepen the humiliation of Zuma. The western-sponsored anti-Gaddafi Libyan 'rebels,' smelling Gaddafi's blood and suspicious of the AU's chumminess with him, were not much interested in Zuma's proposals for some kind of negotiated settlement.

The western countries merrily involved in the Libyan bombing made no secret of the fact that they did not take Zuma's efforts seriously, and did not much try to hide it. A Zuma who has seemed to make much of being in good books with western leaders like the UK's David Cameron or the USA's Barack Obama was not at all able to leverage these 'friendships,' even to merely save face. It was a sorry, painful sight to see the public, international humiliation of Zuma, and by extension that of South Africa.

Now comes the Dalai Lama fiasco.

The exuberant retired Archbishop Tutu rather loves attention and is not everyone's cup of tea, but he seems to mean well and has a solid anti-apartheid struggle pedigree. It seemed silly and mean to begrudge him of  his wish to have his friend the Dalai Lama attend his 80th birthday party celebrations.

China might have feared the embarrassment of some of the things that might have been said at the birthday commemorations, but the Dalai Lama and Tutu are old men of questionable remaining influence, and China is a big boy now on the world stage. It can get its way when it disproves of something strongly enough, but the point in this case was why it might choose to be so threatened by these two old guys blowing birthday candles. They might have possibly made some China-embarrassing-statements about democracy and human rights, but no one would remember them a week later.

The speculations on why South Africa has sat on the Dalai Lama's visa application for months: China is South Africa's biggest trading partner. The ANC and the Chinese Communist Party have been close for decades. Last week South African deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe was on an official visit to China, where investment deals worth $2.5 billion were reportedly signed. And so on in this vein.

Even if China were upset at the Dalai Lama being allowed his visit, does anybody in Zuma's government really worry that the trade and investment relationship with China would be jeopardized in any way? China is the ultimate pragmatist nation when it comes to its economic relations, and has as much desire and motivation to keep good trade terms with South Africa as South Africa does with China. It seems very far fetched to suggest that a little matter like the Dalai Lama sharing birthday cake with Tutu, regardless of how much extra symbolism anybody else might read into the visit, would change the many reasons that the two countries mutually benefit from their economic ties.

If the visit had been allowed there might have been some salving of China's ego to be done by South Africa, but there is no reason to believe that this couldn't be done. Any heat would soon blow over.

South Africa looks cowardly to have just endlessly sat on the application. Granting it would have been best and right, but even explicitly denying it would have been much better than not acting on it at all. If anything, the Dalai Lama has made South Africa look even smaller by effectively withdrawing the application (just before the SA authorities were said to be finally ready to give him an answer) by essentially saying, ''I will not continue with the charade of pretending I might still get the visa. I therefore now withdraw my application. Please keep your precious visa.''

Zuma was asked about the matter a few days ago at a press conference. His incredibly mealy-mouthed answer: “The department of international relations and co-operation 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 it. How do I know?””

Jeepus, with that quality of an answer Zuma only made himself sound more ridiculous in a way his country does not deserve of its president. There were several other ways he could have dodged the question without basically saying ''I am unaware and uninvolved.''

This was not a routine visa application, and South Africa has controversially previously turned down the Dalai Lama's visa request. If Zuma really wasn't keeping up with and/or even influencing the process one way or the other, it would be fair to ask why not, given the diplomatic and image implications for his country.

Zuma's answer made him sound either like a liar or a disengaged president who is not at least apprised of a matter he should be. If the intent was to give the impression of a respect for professionals to do their jobs without political interference from the top, in this case it failed miserably, because the whole affair simply reeks of politics. If the president is not going to be involved in a deeply politicized visa application such as this one, why isn't he, especially after it has become so controversial in ways that cast a negative light on him personally, his government and his country's image?

As if the whole affair wasn't already a farce, after the Dalai Lama's effective withdrawal of his application, vice president Motlanthe finally, conveniently found the government's voice. He came out to incredibly state that the government would have given the Dalai Lama a visa to visit South Africa if he had not cancelled his application.

Finally finding it possible to lose the government's months-long coy shyness,  Motlanthe said, apparently with a straight face, "Of course, he has been here before. I don't see why it should be an issue at all." In other words, he didn't get what everybody had been fussing about!

Really at this point it would have been better for the SA government to keep quiet about the international image and diplomatic disaster it had caused itself. Given the months of ducking and diving on giving an answer, Motlanthe's after the-withdrawal ''of course we would have granted it'' simply sounds like a very poor attempt at face-saving. Many people will interpret it as a plain old lie. 

Tutu came out guns blazing: "I can't believe this. I really can't believe it," he said, laughing ironically. "You have to wake me up and tell me this is actually happening here. It is quite unbelievable the discourtesy they have shown to the Dalai Lama. People were opposed to injustice and oppression and people believe that we South Africans would be on the side of those who are oppressed. Tibet is being oppressed," he said. "Our government, representing me, says it will not support Tibetans who are being oppressed viciously by the Chinese." 

This outpouring is of course exactly what the Chinese and South African governments feared would happen if the Dalai Lama and Tutu were allowed to hang out together. But it is more a result of the treatment of the Dalai Lama in the visa fiasco than an indication of Tutu's disregard for diplomatic sensibilities. The Dalai Lama has once visited South Africa before and the sky didn't fall; no China-angering incidents were recorded then.

And even if there had been embarrassment for China over its treatment of Tibetans, so what? South Africa could have maintained its support-for-democracy image while soothing official Chinese feelings and assuring them trade relations would continue, which is their over-riding concern. However tricky the situation was considered to be by the South African government, they could surely have handled it far better than they did at almost every step of the mess.   

Contrast this to the situation in Zambia, where China-critic Michael Sata is just two weeks into his job as new president. Zambia is hugely dependent on Chinese investment, particularly in its copper mining sector. Zambia and its president have every reason to be more afraid of ruffling China's feathers than does richer, more developed, more economically diversified and more generally 'independent' South Africa.

Yet while he was in opposition, while campaigning for the election he just won and immediately after taking office, Sata has not been shy to articulate Zambians' deeply held resentment about alleged Chinese business malpractices in their country. Correctly, Sata has expressed appreciation for China's important investment contribution, but pointed out that this was no license for flouting the country's labor laws.

No one has suggested the Chinese are going to pack up their bags and go back to Beijing in a huff, even though that would delight some Zambians. China will get used to the new man in town and is no doubt advising its citizens in Zambia to behave with more respect for their hosts, to reduce the avalanche of ill will against them that helped propel Sata to the presidential palace.

When you compare the relative bargaining power of Zambia and South Africa with their ''friend'' China, you can't help but notice how bold Zambia has been in pushing for its interests versus South Africa. South Africa  has compromised what it says are its national values and tarnished its international image in the process, all for fear of stepping on China's toes.

Eish, it's another huge, sad and unnecessary embarrassment for Zuma and South Africa on the world stage. Where can Africa look to for any firm, exemplary leadership if its most powerful presidents and countries appear so feckless and weak?

The Zimbabwe Review


Post a Comment