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Tutu’s last-ditch visa appeal for Dalai Lama rejected

Published on 06/10/2011

Desmond Tutu's last-ditch appeal to South Africa to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama on the eve of his 80th birthday was rejected Thursday, marring the start of the celebrations.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader on Tuesday cancelled a planned trip to South Africa because of delays with his visa, provoking a furious response from Tutu who blasted President Jacob Zuma’s government as worse than apartheid and accused him of kowtowing to China.

British billionaire Richard Branson joined the chorus of condemnation in a blog post, saying he had written to Zuma urging him to allow the visit.

“How very sad therefore to see South Africa bowing to pressure from China to stop the Dalai Lama visiting South Africa to celebrate Archbishop Desmond Tutus birthday this Friday, where together they were going to discuss peace and reconciliation,” he said.

Zuma has refused to take a public stand on the visa, saying Monday that “I don’t think that you can get a definite answer from me.”

But his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe told local media on Wednesday that he had no problem with the Dalai Lama’s visit.

Tutu’s Peace Centre then urged Motlanthe to intervene to grant the visa, but his spokesman Thabo Masebe told AFP that “the deputy president does not become involved in visa applications.”

“The deputy president did not have a problem with the Dalai Lama,” Masebe said. “This does not suggest he would be in a position to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama.”

The Dalai Lama has visited South Africa three times before and was welcomed by former president Nelson Mandela. But South Africa denied him a visa in 2009, openly admitting it feared alienating key trade partner China.

He had been invited to give an inaugural lecture on Saturday, wrapping up three days of events around the archbishop’s birthday.

The celebrations began Thursday inside St George’s Cathedral, where Tutu rallied for all-race democracy as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, with a launch of his new biography, “Tutu: The Authorised Portrait”, co-authored by his youngest daughter Mpho and journalist Allister Sparks.

The glossy book outlines his life story with pictures and tributes from world dignitaries, and the upbeat, relaxed ceremony featured frequent laughter and Tutu’s dance moves.

“It has been a great privilege to work on this book,” Mpho Tutu told the around 300 people in the church pews.

“For me the greatest blessing of it has been hearing the stories about my father that I otherwise would never have heard.”

The audience included anti-apartheid luminaries such as Ahmed Kathrada and Alan Boesak, and others such as U2 frontman Bono, who sat with Tutu’s family in the front pew.

“More than ever in these chaotic times, we need the strength, the wisdom and indeed the serenity of Desmond Tutu,” said Bono, who also joked that: “I’m obviously not radical enough to be denied a visa.”

Bono then launched into “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” accompanied by an African choir.

Tutu’s actual birthday is Friday, which he will celebrate with a public church service at St George’s, followed by a private picnic.

“If our people had repudiated me, if those of you in the outside world had not supported us, I would have been nil,” said Tutu in his words of thanks.

The “Arch” was the most important figure next to Mandela in liberating South Africa, said Sparks, who slammed the visa saga as a “national disgrace.”

“Nelson Mandela is no longer an active personality, he’s deep in his 90s, he’s gone into total retirement and so we’re left with Desmond Tutu I think as the conscience of South Africa,” Sparks added.

“But I think he is more than that, I think he is a global figure.”