Rainbow nation flags over Dalai Lama saga

An evening vigil outside the South African parliament on Monday 3 October to call on the South African government to grant the Dalai Lama a visa Image copyright AFP
Image caption A vigil was held outside South Africa's parliament calling for a visa to be granted

So, democratic South Africa has chosen to put its crucial trading relationship with China above its commitment to free speech and an old friend.

The decision was hardly a surprise. Nor was the furious reaction from supporters of the Dalai Lama - and many others here - who called it "the darkest day", and a cowardly, hypocritical pandering to Beijing's bullying.

But what struck me most was the dispiritingly cheap way in which the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet was denied the opportunity to visit Cape Town, and attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th Birthday celebrations.

First President Jacob Zuma - not untypically - ducked the whole issue with a "how do I know" shrug.

Then the South African Foreign Ministry chose simply to sit on its hands, rather than announce a decision, forcing the Dalai Lama to cancel his visit and enabling a foreign ministry spokesman to offer this breathtakingly disingenuous reaction: "Unfortunately he's decided to pull out of the trip, which is his decision..."

Wretched year

Diplomacy can be a delicate business. Discretion often works best.

But the Dalai Lama visa saga comes towards the end of a wretched year for South African foreign policy.

Somewhere, in Pretoria's flip-flopping over the crisis in Ivory Coast and the revolution in Libya, there is a principled commitment to neutrality, negotiated solutions and respect for the integrity of sovereign states.

And yet on each occasion, South Africa has appeared "have-it-both-ways" indecisive, reactive and incapable of articulating a clear position. China is important to South Africa's economy.

So why not make that argument and take the criticism regarding the Dalai Lama on the chin?

South Africa's broad, inclusive government has helped to keep a fractious nation together as it emerges from the shadows of apartheid.

But it has also enabled individual ministries - and yes, presidents too - to hide behind a curtain of collective responsibility.

The result is lack of accountability and leadership that sometimes makes the rainbow nation look, at best, foggy.

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