South Africa is paying a heavy price for its relationship with China. The cardinal values of South Africa’s foreign policy are gradually corroded by pragmatic considerations of maintaining strong relations with China. The recent debacle over the granting of visa to the Dalai Lama demonstrates the extent to which South Africa is malleable to Chinese influence. It also underlines a trend that has been in motion for a while – the regressive evolution of South Africa’s foreign policy.
In one sense, the ugly developments around the Dalai Lama offers us a mirror to assess our performance as a country, both in terms of the norms of our foreign policy and the depth of our commitment to the values that are foundational to the construction of South Africa’s democracy. The South African government has chosen to trade these values for closer friendship with China. On the other hand, China may be extracting back payments for its support for South Africa’s accession to the rarefied club of the BRIC countries that include Brazil, Russia, India and China.
The Dalai Lama, who is the Tibetan spiritual leader, poses no threat to South Africa. He is China’s nemesis, though, and the tensions between the two date back to over five decades ago. For many years now, the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China has sought to vulgarise the spiritual order of the succession of Dalai Lamas through political fiat, and constrain their liberties. During September 2007, the Chinese government issued an edict that all high monks must be approved by the government, which would include the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama after the death of Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama that South Africa refused to grant visa to. In this way, the Party not only holds political power but metaphysical properties too.
The Dalai Lama has been a voice of reason criticising China for its human rights failings since he fled to India in March 1959. His persistent efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The US Administration granted him the Highest Civilian Order in 2007 in recognition of his positive contribution to humanity. All of this should strike a positive chord with South Africa’s own struggle for civil liberties. Instead the South African ruling elites have elected to pour scorn and mount an offensive on the Dalai Lama and the values he stands for by denying him entry into the country.
South Africa had no reason to fear China since, in any case, it is China that has a deep yearning for credibility and has the burden to demonstrate to the rest of the world that there is nothing to be feared in its so-called peaceful rise. By dragging its feet on the visa issue, the South African government has, to the gratification of the Chinese government, reduced the Dalai Lama into an object of scorn. No longer ashamed of its opprobrium, the government effectively put the Dalai Lama on a test to see if he would also descend to its wretched levels or would act in ways that are honourable and consistent with his hallowed status by abandoning the shameful visa application process altogether.
The Dalai Lama acted conscientiously, as the alternative would have been for him to countenance the unedifying conduct of the South African government, and thereby become an implicit participant in its circus. Although the public would have wanted the Dalai Lama to wait it out until the end so as to embarrass government, he chose to act honourably, deflect attention from himself, and offered the government a face-saving solution.
The irony, of course, is that this happens in a country that achieved significant international goodwill on the back of its commitment to freedom and for making a stand point for what is right. Today, the South African government is getting more attention for standing up for all the wrong causes.
The heart-beat of South Africa’s foreign policy is now tied to what appears to be the Chinese life support instead of drawing strength from the bosom of the country’s constitution and the multitudes of friends who are committed to liberty from around the world. Under both successive eras of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, South Africa prided itself for the independence of its foreign policy, the clarity of ideas, its confidence on the global stage, and its strong values framework. This has become threadbare.
In the absence of the statement from the Chinese government to absolve itself, it is fair to assume that China exerted some influence. China will have to be careful not to overplay its hand on South Africa’s foreign policy as this could risk provoking widespread anti-Chinese sentiments. If indeed, China is holding South Africa by the strings, this surely casts a terrifying spectre of foreign occupation whose influence - spoken or unspoken - seems to be more decisive than the weight of opinion of South Africans; and has a stronger force than the moral foundations of the South African society as expressed in its constitution.
The treatment of the Dalai Lama, made worse by incoherent explanations blended with chicanery by government officials, is not only a measure of corrosion of foreign policy values under Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, but how fast the ruling party in general is losing its moral bearings under President Jacob Zuma. This regressive shift in South Africa’s foreign policy and the country’s core values should invoke a dirge.