If we stand for nothing, we will fall for everything


The Dalai Lama has withdrawn his application for a visa for South Africa after it become clear it would be refused, although this is yet to be confirmed by a senior official in the department of international relations.

“We have informally received contact His Holiness won’t get his visa,” Nangsa Chodon, the Dalai Lama’s South Africa-based representative, told the news agency, Reuters.

The event which he was to attend was a gathering of Nobel Laureates hosted by the Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille. She was quoted as saying that she was yet to hear from government, but hoped that the Dalai Lama would not once more be humiliated.

This follows outrage over the decision to bar him from South Africa in 2009, saying that his presence would be a distraction ahead of the World Cup.

Once more the spotlight has fallen on government’s decision to place its relationship with China ahead of its professed claim to a leadership role on human rights.

What exactly is government’s rationale and is it worthy of closer examination?

The place where this has been best expressed is in the May 2011 white paper by the department of international relations which carried the heading “Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu”.

The paper concluded with the noble sentiment: “South Africa’s greatest asset lies in the power of its example. In an uncertain world, characterized by a competition of values, South Africa’s diplomacy of Ubuntu, focusing on our common humanity, provides an inclusive and constructive world view.”

Reading that sentence, you would assume that we would take an “inclusive” approach, especially when it came to a leading non-violent spiritual leader from a part of the world where there are great political difficulties.

There are several other parts of this document which appear to back up this sentiment for example “The dilemma that has emerged across the world is the extent to which globalization threatens existing cultures” and “This philosophy translates into an approach to international relations that respects all nations, peoples and cultures.”

But these sentiments, full of the humanist overtones of the Nelson Mandela era, are eclipsed by more prosaic concerns elsewhere in the document.

South Africa, it suggests, is on the cusp of playing a larger role in world affairs because it has taken advantage of an unspecified “shift in the balance of power in the international system” to play a leading role on the African continent.

“The next strategic challenge is for South Africa to utilise this opportunity to take the initiative in shaping a new global order.”

Later on it becomes clear that the power shift is that towards Asia, specifically “emerging powers such as China and India”.

“The political ascendancy of Asia will be increasingly reflected in the global system of governance, peace and security, and finance. This provides opportunities for South Africa to closely cooperate in multilateral organisaitons in order to reform the global architecture.”

South Africa’s admission to the BRICs nations alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China represents a very concrete step in that direction.

What the country fears, according to the paper is “the risk of marginalization and exclusion from supply networks” that it needs to “anchor” it in Asian markets.

So there you have it. The dilemma is simply this: Should South Africa stay true to its promise of the humanist “Ubuntu” sentiment which it professes is the key driver of its policies? Or should it sacrifice inclusivity in order to win favour with China?

The old expression: “If you stand for nothing, you will fall for everything” comes to mind.

*  A very much shortened version of this appeared in The Times last week

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