South Africa Peace Forum Canceled Over Dalai Lama Controversy

Johannesburg, South Africa - Organizers of a peace conference meant to showcase the role of sports in promoting unity canceled the forum Tuesday, citing the South African government's decision to block the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, from attending.

South Africa's denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama prompted a quick exodus of several star members of the conference's lineup, who accused the government of succumbing to pressure from China, a major trade partner. The government's decision drew widespread condemnation, with critics portraying it as a major blunder ahead of the nation's hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup and an erosion of South Africa's reputation as a beacon of freedom and human rights.

"The conveners have therefore decided, in the spirit of peace, to postpone the South Africa peace conference to ensure it is held under conducive conditions," Irvin Khoza, chairman of South Africa's World Cup organizing committee, the conference sponsor, said at a news conference that was originally intended to publicize the event's final schedule. The peace forum was to begin Friday.

Two of three South African Nobel peace laureates who had invited the Tibetan leader, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former president F.W. de Klerk, said Monday that they would boycott the event, and organizers said the third, former president Nelson Mandela, would probably do the same. The Norwegian Nobel Committee also backed out.

A spokesman for South African President Kgalema Motlanthe played down the controversy, saying the government had not been bullied by China but felt the Dalai Lama's presence would distract attention from next year's soccer tournament. Motlanthe would not welcome the Dalai Lama for any reason, "whether today or tomorrow," spokesman Thabo Masebe said.

"We would like to take full advantage of this in terms of promoting and marketing South Africa to the rest of the world," Masebe said in an interview. If the Dalai Lama came, he said, "the people would be talking about Tibet, talking about China and so on. That would be a diversion."

If South Africa's intent was to avoid a firestorm, it greatly backfired. On Tuesday, the topic dominated talk radio and newspapers, which were emblazoned with headlines such as "SA sells its soul to China." Some critics said the visa decision, like South Africa's gentle approach to autocratic Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, was more evidence that the government that toppled apartheid was abandoning its values.

"This rejection by the government, to not issue a visa, is really tainting our efforts at democracy. It's a sad day for South Africa. It's a sad day for Africa," said conference organizer Mandla Mandela, who said he was sure his grandfather Nelson Mandela would also have skipped the conference. "Where are we heading in the future?"

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in the administrative capital, Pretoria, declined to comment on whether China, which regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist, had urged South Africa to turn him away.

"All countries which have diplomatic relations with China, including South Africa, recognize that there is only one China in the world and do not recognize the so-called independence of Tibet," spokeswoman Du Ling said, reading a statement. "We fully respect the position upheld by the South African government."

The conference was to be kicked off with a tour of Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was an epicenter of anti-apartheid resistance, and finish with a soccer match between South Africa and Norway. Khoza said that the soccer match would still take place and that organizers hope to reschedule the conference before the World Cup.

That will mean re-inviting several luminaries of diplomacy and the silver screen who had pledged to attend. On Tuesday, organizers held up letters of confirmation from invitees, including Queen Rania of Jordan and South African actress Charlize Theron, who is a designated U.N. messenger of peace. The government was given a list of the invitees in November, with the Dalai Lama included, and made no objections, Mandela said.

Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile, said that he was "disappointed" in South Africa's decision but that the Dalai Lama, a committed pacifist, was uninterested in stirring trouble.

"We certainly believe South Africa has decided not to give a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama under pressure from the Chinese government," Samphel said, speaking by phone from India. "At the same time, His Holiness is on record saying that he does not wish to cause any inconvenience to any government."