South Africa's hypocrisy on the Dalai Lama

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi contrasts our policy towards Tibet, with our approach to South Sudan

Nothing illuminates the inconsistency, and even hypocrisy, of South Africa's foreign policy than the divergent approaches it adopts towards Tibet, a province of China, and what is now the newly independent African state of South Sudan.

The current controversy about our government's delay in issuing a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, to attend the 80th birthday of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, has brought this into sharper focus.

There is no doubt that the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) views the Dalai Lama as a political enemy that is hell-bent on promoting the separatist goal of a break-away Tibet, even though the Dalai Lama supports greater autonomy for Tibet within greater China, and is advancing this goal through peaceful, non-violent, means.

It is not a diplomatic secret in international relations that the PRC exerts sustained and enormous pressure on other countries of the world to distance themselves from Dalai Lama and his international campaign for greater autonomy for Tibet within greater China.

The PRC would naturally not spare South Africa such diplomatic pressure in the event of the Dalai Lama wishing to visit South Africa to attend Archbishop Tutu's birthday, whether in private or in public.

Since 2009, under the Jacob Zuma administration, there seems to have emerged an unfortunate pattern on the part of South Africa to postpone, protract and complicate the process of a possible visit of the Dalai Lama to South Africa to the point where such a possible visit is rendered impossible, to all intents and purposes.

Compare this attitude of the Jacob Zuma government to South Africa's unstinted and whole-hearted support for the dismemberment of Sudan, and the creation of the independent Republic of South Sudan on July 9 2011.

Whilst Tibet existed as an independent entity until the 13th century, when it was conquered by the Chinese Ming Dynasty, as well as between 1912-1951, after which it was incorporated by force into the PRC, South Sudan has never existed as an independent state, in one form or another.

If anything, the official South Sudan Government website states that "no state existed in the territory now known as South Sudan before the European scramble for Africa".

But critically, since 1955, and especially after the Independence of Sudan in 1956, both the forces that fought for South Sudan Independence - South Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM), and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - resorted to violence and armed struggle as policy of choice from the get-go. And they remained largely focused on independence as an end goal.

In contrast, save for intermittent uprisings in Tibet since 1951 against the Han Chinese domination, the Dalai Lama and the Free Tibet movement remained largely committed to peaceful means and non-violence, and never sought independence from PRC, but instead sought greater autonomy for Tibet within greater China.

South Sudan has a population of about 8.2 million people, made up mainly of black Bantu tribes, many of whom are Christian and African animiist, unlike the Arab and Moslem North Sudan.

On the other hand, Tibet has a population of about 5.5 million people, made up mainly of Tibetan Buddhists, minority Moslems and Christians, and the Han Chinese who have been largely resettled by the central Beijing  PRC government to influence Tibet's demographic profile to its favour.

The historical threat that binds Tibet and South Sudan together is the unspeakable perfidy that was perpetrated on both by imperial British colonialism.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Britain and Egypt established the Anglo-Egypt Condominium over Sudan between 1895-1955, which basically favoured the Arab and Moslem North Sudan over the Black, Christian and Animist South Sudan.

Thus the seeds for future conflicts between North and South Sudan were mid-wived.

With regard to Tibet, in 1914, at the height of China's national humiliation by colonial and imperial powers, and two years after the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) under Yetsen, imperial Britain connived and schemed to conclude the Shimla Convention with Tibet, which had the effect of recognising Tibet as no more a part of China.

As a result of Imperial British scheming, and despite the strong protestations from ROC, between 1912-1951 Tibet was effectively outside the control of first the ROC, and briefly of the PRC.

The seeds of the current international and diplomatic stand-off over Tibet were thus planted.

In his book, "The Coming Collapse of China", Gordon G. Chang states that "the colony of 150 000 Tibetans in India is the West's favorite group of refugees, an inspiration to those who root for underdogs".

There is also little doubt that South Sudanese refugees from the conflict with Arab and Moslem Northern Sudan, became the West's favourite group of African refugees, especially amongst the American Evangelicals, who saw these South Sudanese Christian refugees as a ready fodder for their "Clash of Civilization" between the Christian West and Islamic Fundamentalism.

But here the similarities between Tibet and South Sudan ended.

Whilst there was growing international, and even black African, support for an independent South Sudan, the view of the international community on Tibet has not departed much from what India's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, stated in September 1950 to a senior Tibetan delegation:

"The Government of India will continue the policy of the British period in considering Tibet outwardly a part of China but internally independent".

But even this self-restrained and hedged Nerhu formulation on Tibet the PRC rejected out of hand. It may also have been the unspoken reason why the PRC, without any provocation whatsoever, invaded India in 1962, "to teach it a lesson", as Chou En-Lai, China's legendary Foreign Minister, once infamously put it.

In the circumstances, the only thing that was a positive development for Tibet was that Taiwan ceased to view Tibet as an indivisible and inseparable part of PRC.

For its part the PRC government continued to view any campaign for greater Tibetan autonomy, or Tibetan independence, as a thin wedge directed at challenging the territorial integrity, national sovereignty and sovereign independence of the PRC.

For many decades the Arab and Moslem Northern Sudan viewed the struggle for independence by South Sudan in a similar vein.

However the key distinguishing feature between China and the Arab, Moslem, and North Sudan was that from 1978, thanks to Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, China emerged as a global economic superpower, whilst Sudan's national vitality was sapped by the two vicious civil wars with South Sudan between 1956-1972 and 1983-2005.

So definitive was Sudan's national decline and diplomatic  collapse as a Horn of Africa regional power that not even the sacrosanct OAU principle of the sanctity of inherited colonial borders was sufficient to save it from dismemberment, and the secession, of South Sudan.

Ethiopia, Sudan's neighbour, had voluntarily let go of Eritrea at the conclusion of a protracted war that was waged to oust the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu from power. But North Sudan never wanted to let go of South Sudan, very much like the PRC has no intention to let go of Tibet.

It must therefore have come as a great irony to Sudan that from 2008 former President Thabo Mbeki devoted all his time and energy to the resolution of the Sudanese conflict, a feat that should rightly earn him the Nobel Peace Prize this year or next.

When South Sudan gained independence on July 9 2011, South Africans were represented by no less a personage than President Jacob Zuma at the independence celebrations to usher in Africa, and the world's newest country.

But it turns out that none of our post apartheid senior Government Ministers, with the salutary exception of former President Nelson Mandela, would want to be caught alive sharing a lift, let alone attending the same birthday party, with Tibet's Dalai Lama.

Should it not be clear by now that Tibet has by far a much greater historical claim and suzerainty antecedents to its coveted status of "outwardly a part of China but internally independent", to quote India's Nerhu, than South Sudan ever had to now and today be a newly independent African country?

When did our moral courage and diplomatic consistency depart us to deal with historical facts as they are?

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director of the Centre Of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA). He is also a businessman and former diplomat. This article first appeared in the Pretoria News, October 2011

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