Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

If even someone as illustrious as the Dalai Lama has to bow before the intractable bureaucracy of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, who am I to complain?

Maybe you haven’t been following the news about this latest kerfuffle in South African politics. What happened is that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is turning eighty years old, invited the Dalai Lama to his party. A visa was applied for – in June – but never granted, even though it is now October and the birthday in question only days away. Oh doesn’t that sound like a familiar story to this expat?

But of course the Dalai Lama is no mere expat, so more sinister motives are alleged and Desmond Tutu today went on a tirade against the ANC government, accusing it of being worse than the apartheid regime. The accusation is that China, in its capacity as South Africa’s biggest trading partner, put pressure on the government to deny the Dalai Lama entry. This, so the activists say, put the ANC in a severe pickle – defy China or flaunt everything you stand for in terms of supporting the rights of the world’s suppressed. The ANC maintains that the visa merely got caught up in bureaucratic red tape.

I wouldn’t put it past the ANC to be entirely hypocritical. Its recent efforts to attack the freedom of the press, because what is published about the ANC government is unflattering, to say the least, are nothing short of appalling. And China, with its mostly ridiculous obsession with the Dalai Lama, would probably be all too happy to exert its influence just to be able to spite him.

And yet I wonder. I’ve dealt with so much institutional incompetence here in South Africa and heard such horrific tales about Home Affairs that blaming bureaucracy for the fiasco seems like the most plausible explanation. In a way it seems only fair that even Desmond Tutu can’t make any headway where all of us have already failed so miserably. If indeed China had its hand in it and the ANC issued a veto against the visa, they disguised the whole thing brilliantly, cloaked under the mantle of departmental stupidity.

It’s a well-known tactic: Deny wrongdoing by claiming ignorance. My kids do it all the time! And if they don’t like being slammed by the press for this ignorance either, they can always push through those new press laws, declare the words “visa” and “Dalai Lama” state secrets, and make the whole headache of a story go away. It’s as simple as that.

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