- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - Organizers shelved a peace conference meant to show how sports can bring people and nations together because South Africa’s government _ fearing trouble with China _ won’t allow the Dalai Lama to attend.

South Africa’s soccer officials and a grandson of Nelson Mandela, who were putting Friday’s conference together, announced Tuesday it was postponed indefinitely because the Dalai Lama had been barred.

The conference had been in doubt since South Africa’s government said a day earlier the Dalai Lama was not welcome, prompting condemnation and a boycott by retired Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.

Queen Rania of Jordan, the entire Nobel Peace Committee, other laureates and Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, a native of South Africa, had been among those confirmed to attend.

Friday’s conference was intended to highlight ways soccer can promote peace, and all Nobel peace laureates had been invited, along with world statesmen and celebrities. Irvin Khoza, who is chairman of the South African committee organizing the 2010 World Cup, also heads the professional soccer league that was arranging and funding the conference.

Organizers said they hoped to hold the event when the Dalai Lama could attend, and that they hoped that would be before the World Cup. South Africa’s tournament will be the first in Africa.

Asked by reporters whether the Tibetan Nobel Peace laureate would be issued a visa before the sporting event, Thabo Masebe, spokesman for President Kgalema Motlanthe, said: “No, we won’t.”

He said he did not want a visit to be a distraction at a time when South Africa was hoping to showcase its transformation from pariah apartheid state to international, multiracial role model.

“You can’t remove Tibet from” the Dalai Lama, Masebe said. “That becomes the issue and South Africa is no longer the issue.”

Tibet’s government-in-exile said South Africa was acting under pressure from China, but South Africa’s government denied it. South Africa is China’s largest African trading partner.

Masebe had said a day earlier South Africa would not allow the Dalai Lama to visit for the peace conference, citing South Africa’s ties to China and generating sharp criticism of South Africa. Fellow Nobel peace laureate Tutu as well as members of the Nobel Committee pulled out of the conference in response.

Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson and a member of the conference organizing committee, told reporters Tuesday he wanted the Dalai Lama there when the conference is held. Barring a leader of the Dalai Lama’s stature, the younger Mandela said, “is really worrying and saddening. Where are we headed in the future?”

“I don’t think as a sovereign country we need to succumb to international pressures,” he added, referring to criticism that South Africa acted to placate China.

Government spokesman Masebe has insisted, though, that South Africa did not act under pressure. Masebe also has said the Dalai Lama has been welcome in the past and would be allowed back one day.

Thupten Samphel, official spokesman of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, said it was clear to him that “South Africa is acting under pressure” from China.

Sonam Tenzing, the government-in-exile’s representative in South Africa, said this was the first time any government had barred the Dalai Lama. Whatever had changed in Pretoria since the Dalai Lama’s last visit, in 2004, “I’m sure the relationship between the people of South Africa and the people of Tibet hasn’t changed.

“The people of Tibet draw inspiration from the people of South Africa. The people of Tibet look up to the people of South Africa who gained freedom in 1994,” Tenzing said.

Beijing, an ally when South Africa’s now-governing African National Congress was a liberation movement, has had diplomatic ties with Pretoria for a decade and an economic relationship based on trade and aid.

China has been building ties across Africa in recent years. Its total exports to Africa last year rose 36.3 percent from 2007 to $50.8 billion, while imports of African goods rose 54 percent to $56 billion, according to customs data reported by Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, in February.

Critics say China’s investment in and aid to Africa is meant only to secure access to the continent’s natural resources.

China also is accused of being willing to do business with dictators to get what it wants. African governments, though, laud China for giving aid without the strings Westerners often attach, and are counting on China standing by them amid the global economic meltdown.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang portrayed South Africa’s stance on the Dalai Lama as in line with China’s contention that Tibetan Buddhism’s top cleric was pursuing independence for his homeland.

The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, nine years after communist troops occupied the region.

“The Dalai Lama is not simply a religious figure but a political exile long engaged in separatist activity under the pretext of religion,” Qin told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference.

China is “resolutely opposed” to any country providing the Dalai Lama with a forum, Qin said.

China has ratcheted up condemnation on the Dalai Lama to coincide with this month’s 50th anniversary of the 1959 rebellion.

China claims Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, although many Tibetans say they were functionally independent for much of that time and accuse Beijing of eroding their traditional Buddhist culture.

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