JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African peace conference of Nobel laureates has been postponed after the government denied a visa to Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, organisers said on Tuesday.
Several Nobel peace prize winners had threatened to boycott the event over the visa ban, but the government said it was standing by its decision. Local media said the visa was refused after pressure from China, a big investor and trade partner.
South Africa said it was not influenced by China.
The conference, due to take place on March 27, was organised by soccer authorities in South Africa, the host of the 2010 World Cup, and was expected to use soccer as a way of fighting xenophobia and racism ahead of the tournament.
“We have decided to postpone the peace conference until further notice,” said Irvin Khoza, South Africa 2010 Organising Committee chairman. He said it would be postponed until all those invited could attend.
The Dalai Lama was invited to participate in the conference by fellow Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.
Government spokesman Thabo Masebe said the Dalai Lama’s presence was not in South Africa’s best interest at the moment.
“We stand by our decision. Nothing is going to change. The Dalai Lama will not be invited to South Africa. We will not give him a visa between now and the World Cup,” he said.
China, which brands the Buddhist monk a separatist, said it would continue to oppose his trips to other countries.
“We resolutely oppose any country’s government having official contact with the Dalai Lama or enabling or offering a platform for his splittist activities,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing.
The decision to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa has come under severe criticism from opposition parties in a country which has prided itself as a model of democracy and human rights since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Mandla Mandela, whose grandfather Nelson Mandela helped lead South Africa out of apartheid, and who is part of the committee organising the conference, said the rejection was tainting the country’s democratic credentials.
“I don’t think that as a sovereign, independent country we need to succumb to international pressure ... the government needs to review its decision and come to the party,” he said.
Mandela is due to become a parliamentarian himself if the ruling African National Congress wins the April 22 general election as expected.
He said he would personally push for the conference to be reinstated in the original form, with all invitees attending.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and set up a Tibetan government-in-exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Rioting broke out last March in Tibet’s main city of Lhasa after several days of peaceful protests by monks against Beijing’s rule, killing 19 people and sparking a wave of violence across Tibetan areas. Exile groups say more than 200 people died in the crackdown.