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Tutu Attacks ANC in Dalai Lama Spat

The dispute over a visa delay raises deeper questions about Zuma's ability to balance diplomacy and domestic politics.
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The close relationship between South Africa and China, and the degree to which the ANC is straying from its revolutionary roots, came under the spotlight yesterday as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu hit out at the decision to deny the Dalai Lama a visa at a press conference in Cape Town, saying that he can foresee a day when he would “pray for the overthrow of the ANC”.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, who had hoped to attend the Archbishop’s 80th birthday in Cape Town yesterday, withdrew his request for a visa after being faced with an unusually long delay. It is widely believed that South Africa was responding to pressure from China. The controversy is the latest in a series of blunders that has seen South Africa’s growing significance on the world stage cause vocal disagreement between the higher echelons of government and domestic activists.

A visibly angry Tutu told the ANC that he was “warning them” as he had “warned the nationalists”. He called the current government “worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it from the apartheid government”.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu responded that Tutu was “angry and emotional”, and asked him to “please calm down”. Mthembu claimed that Tutu had “decided to be economical with the truth” and was saying things that he knew “deep down in his heart” to be untrue.

If the ANC did directly intervene to veto the Dalai Lama’s visa application then it seems the decision was not unrelated to a successful diplomatic visit to Beijing last week. The delegation, headed by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, succeeded in winning $2.5 billion in investment from the Chinese government.

Mthembu denied that the party were “micro-managing government” and called upon the South African population not to “jump the gun” and to wait for a response from the government.

Whether the public will heed Mthembu’s advice remains to be seen. What remains certain is that whatever the truth behind the current visa scandal, this incident will do nothing for South Africa’s standing internationally. Serious questions must be asked about South African President Jacob Zuma’s ability to manage foreign policy. It has not been a successful year for Zuma on the world scale, as his obvious desire to cement the country as a regional super-power has seen a series of worrying blunders.

South Africa’s decision to bail out the near-bankrupt Swaziland raised criticism across the country. The move was widely seen a hand-out to the beleaguered Swazi autocrat Mswati III, with whom Zuma has a close relationship. Many within the government have been vocal in their support of the pro-democracy opposition, including ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. The loan, which is currently in limbo, was openly opposed by the ANC’s electoral allies COSATU, the trade union federation.

Meanwhile Zuma’s past relations with Gaddafi, and his repeated attempts to broker a peace deal in Libya did little for South Africa’s reputation in Libya. At the time of Tripoli’s fall rumours of a South African plane waiting to ferry Gaddafi to safety were widespread, and it will remain to be seen whether the African Union can win the National Transitional Council and future Libyan governments round. Meanwhile Malema’s calls for regime change in Botswana embarrassed Zuma in front of both Botswanan government and local trade unions, and the controversial issue of ANC relations with Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF continues to bubble away.

How much these issues will resonate among the ANCs massive powerbase remains to be seen. The most recent round of elections showed that while the party is haemorrhaging support among white, coloured and Asian voters, it can still achieve majorities that most democratic governments can only dream of. The failure of COPE, and the inability of the DA to shed their image as a white party, has left the ANC the only real contender for votes among South Africa’s black majority. However, with such strong words from Archbishop Tutu, as well as the startling sight of ANCYL supporters burning Zuma in effigy, even a party as secure as the ANC should be worried.

For the Dalai Lama to be missing Tutu’s birthday party may not, in itself, be hugely significant. It comes, however, at an extremely inopportune time, as the ANC struggles to balance the revolutionary principles upon which it was founded with South Africa’s growing status as an African superpower. Serious questions must be asked about Zuma’s ability to comport himself on the world stage without making enemies at home.

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