Dalai Lama calls off South Africa visit

October 4, 2011 - 5:10 AM

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The Dalai Lama has called off a visit to South Africa because he does not expect to get a visa, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader's office said Tuesday.

In a statement from New Delhi, the Dalai Lama's office said he had planned to leave his Indian exile home Thursday, but after failing to receive a visa this week he was "now convinced that for whatever reason or reasons, the South African government finds it inconvenient to issue" a visa.

South African foreign ministry officials had denied accusations they were bowing to pressure from China, which accuses the Dalai Lama of being a separatist. The Dalai Lama insists he is only seeking increased autonomy for Tibet, the homeland from which he has been exiled since 1959.

Fellow Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu had invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa to celebrate his 80th birthday, and bitterly criticized the delay in the issuing of a visa.

Dumisa Ntesebeza, chairman of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which had planned to host a speech by the Dalai Lama on Saturday, the day after Tutu's birthday, said he could not immediately comment. The foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela refused comment.

Rights groups, academics, opposition parties and newspapers in South Africa had pressed their government to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.

In a statement last week, Loyisa Nongxa, vice chancellor of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said that instead of trying to "silence" the Dalai Lama, South Africa should "welcome the opportunity and allow all voices to be heard in our democracy — a right for which we fought with our lives."

The university had hoped to host the Dalai Lama for a second speech during his visit.

In an editorial this week, the Sunday Times of Johannesburg said: "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."

South Africa's deputy president was on a state visit to China last month. China is a major trade partner for South Africa.

The Dalai Lama was welcomed to South Africa in 1996 and met with the country's first black and democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. But in 2009, the South African government kept the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates' peace conference, saying it would detract attention from the 2010 soccer World Cup.