Government says Tibetan leader’s visit would detract from 2010.

The government claims it stopped the Dalai Lama from attending a peace conference in Johannesburg to prevent attention being drawn away from the 2010 World Cup — but the ban has done exactly that.

Nobel peace laureate FW de Klerk and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu were among the leaders who have slammed the decision to bar the exiled leader of Tibet.

Both have pulled out of the conference on Friday, which was to have discussed ways of using soccer to fight racism and xenophobia ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup.

The Dalai Lama furore has made headlines worldwide.

When asked why the government did not foresee the public relations disaster and international media backlash, Foreign Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said: “The government does not make decisions to get good headlines. We decide on what is in the best national interest.”

He said the intention of the peace conference “is to showcase our preparedness for 2010 and that soccer can bring peace. If the Dalai Lama were to come here it would divert attention from our readiness and everyone would focus on Tibet and China”.

“This media storm is precisely why we did not invite him,” Mamoepa said, seemingly unaware of the irony of that statement.

By contrast, former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was granted visitor status by the government and continues to be its guest, despite widespread condemnation of his human rights record. Aristide settled in South Africa in 2004 at the invitation of President Thabo Mbeki.

He is hosted by the government and receives accommodation and services similar to those accorded a cabinet minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has said.

Mamoepa said the Dalai Lama’s situation and Aristide’s were not comparable.

“The African Union, the Americans and the French requested us to host [Aristide] until the situation in his country changes,” Mamoepa said.

He said suggestions that South Africa had bowed to pressure from China when refusing the Dalai Lama entry were “mischievous”.

Thabo Masebe, President Kgalema Motlanthe’s spokesman, said: “We don’t hold anything personal against him. He has visited our country twice before … but his presence this time will create diversions for the country.”

On the public outcry, Masebe said. “We are going to ride the storm. It will pass. It is unfortunate that the archbishop [ Tutu] and Mr De Klerk are threatening to pull out.”

The lobby group South African Friends of Tibet has called for the postponement of the conference and the cancellation of the Mandela Cup soccer match between Norway and South Africa, scheduled for Saturday.

SA Football Association chief executive Raymond Hack said his organisation had, as a courtesy, invited to the match the people attending the peace conference.

“This match has nothing to do with the peace conference. It’s just coincidental that they are taking place at around the same time. We merely invited them to watch the match. Football is apolitical.”

May-Elin Stener, deputy head of the Norwegian embassy, in Pretoria, said the embassy was following the developments.

“We regret the current circumstances very much,” she said.

“[The Mandela Cup game] is a separate issue to the conference, but at this stage our representatives are still going to the conference, so I do not think that we will pull out of the match.”

A Norwegian delegation comprising the Nobel Peace Committee will attend the conference.

  • The Nelson Mandela Foundation said former president Mandela would not attend the conference on Friday.

There was a misconception doing the rounds because Mandela had not planned to attend, the foundation said.

Achmat Dangor, chief executive of the foundation, said Mandela, De Klerk and Tutu were asked to sign invitations to the peace conference.

“The host committee is responsible for assisting the visitors to obtain visas and they should liaise with the South African government if there are delays in issuing visas,” he said.

DATED: 24th March 2009