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By GEOFFREY YORK, Globe and Mail
March 25, 2009

JOHANNESBURG -- The Dalai Lama's world has just gotten a little narrower - again. For the next 16 months, the Tibetan leader will be banned from travelling to South Africa, a country where he was traditionally welcomed, in the wake of heavy pressure from the Chinese government.

South Africa made the announcement yesterday, saying it was a result of the soccer World Cup next year, even though the World Cup is normally associated with and international friendship, rather than blacklists.

The move has sparked uproar in South Africa, where people still see their country as a beacon of human rights because of its anti-apartheid struggle.

The ban is the latest signal of Beijing's growing power and influence in Africa. China has become the top trading partner of many African countries, and China's ruling Communist Party is reported to be a one of the biggest financial contributors to the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party.

"We stand by our decision," government spokesman Thabo Masebe told reporters yesterday. "Nothing is going to change. The Dalai Lama will not be invited to South Africa. We will not give him a visa between now and the World Cup."

The Dalai Lama had been invited to a peace conference in Johannesburg this week by some of South Africa's most revered leaders, including Nelson Mandela. But the government said it refused to give a visa to the Buddhist monk because it would "divert attention" from the World Cup.

The Tibetan spiritual leader is a hated figure in Beijing, where he is routinely attacked as a "splittist" because of his campaign for Tibetan autonomy. The peace conference, linked to South Africa's role as host of the World Cup, has now been cancelled because of the furious reaction from other leading participants when they learned that the Dalai Lama had been banned.

"We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was scheduled to attend the peace conference. Like the Dalai Lama, he is a former winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Archbishop Tutu said he was "distressed and ashamed" by the "disgraceful" decision to prohibit the Dalai Lama from entering South Africa. The move is "a total betrayal of our struggle history," he said.

Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela and an organizer of the peace conference, said the move to bar the Dalai Lama was a "sad day" for a country that sees itself as a leader of Africa.

Archbishop Tutu and another Nobel laureate, former South African president F. W. de Klerk, along with the Nobel Peace Prize committee from Norway, all said they would refuse to attend the conference if the Dalai Lama was barred. The conference, which was supposed to discuss how sports could help to combat racism and xenophobia, was then cancelled.

The Chinese embassy in South Africa has confirmed that it opposed the Dalai Lama's visit. In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday that China appreciates any country that takes "measures" against the Dalai Lama.

In recent years, Beijing has persuaded many countries around the world to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama or to deny him a meeting with their leaders. But the move in South Africa, where the Tibetan leader was welcomed during three visits in the past, has triggered a controversy that has dominated the South African media this week.

Opposition critics said the ANC was "kow-towing" to a major donor of the party. A banner headline in one newspaper said the banning of the Dalai Lama was "Fong-kong diplomacy" - using the African nickname for cheap Chinese-made products. Another newspaper, Business Day, called it a "cynical" and "self-defeating" move. In a poll on a South African website, 86 per cent said the government had "cracked under Chinese pressure."

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