Last week, at a United Nations reception in New York, I had an unexpected opportunity to speak with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a central figure in the struggle to end apartheid and racial discrimination in South Africa.
I had entered the event in order to hand a letter to the Nepalese Prime Minister, urging him to protect the lives of 23 Tibetan refugees at risk of being sent back to Tibet, and seeing Archbishop Tutu's iconic smile was a welcome sight.
He had just given a powerful speech about advancing the rights of women and children. As he was leaving the reception, smiling and waving to the crowd, even giving high fives to those who stretched out their hands, I greeted him with a khata and introduced myself.
Upon hearing the word Tibet, his eyes lit up. Then, shaking his head in what seemed like a mix of expectation and frustration, he said, "I really hope my government will have the courage to let the Dalai Lama visit our country."
He was referring to his invitation for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend his 80th birthday celebration next week, and his fear that the South African government might cave in to China's pressure and refuse the Dalai Lama a visa.
In 2009, South Africa denied the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a peace conference because of Chinese government pressure, a move condemned by many South Africans and people of conscience worldwide.
One can reasonably assume that China's long arm of oppression is a factor in South Africa's decision to delay His Holiness's visa announcement. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has been in Beijing this week for bi-lateral talks.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are loved and respected by millions for their tireless work for peace, justice and humanity. The two men share one of the greatest friendships in history.
As the Archbishop turns 80, the South African government should honor this leader whose vision and moral force have helped the country achieve its freedom. It would be simply criminal for President Zuma to stop these two Nobel laureates from meeting in a country that for many Tibetans is physical proof of the power of nonviolent action.
The Tibet support group, South African Friends of Tibet, has been advocating for His Holiness's visa at the government and civil society level. Now, they've asked for global support.
Please sign a petition to South Africa's Minister of International Relations urging her to grant the visa:
If you can, please also write your own personal letter to the South African government. You can find contact information here: http://www.info.gov.za/
Together, we must join Archbishop Tutu in appealing to South Africa's democratically elected government to honor the history of its own freedom struggle and grant the Dalai Lama a visa.
With hope and solidarity,
P.S. If you can, please support SFT's work for Tibetan freedom:
SFT's letter to the South African Ambassador to the United States:
South Africa: Issue Visa to Dalai Lama (Human Rights Watch):
Dalai Lama’s invite to Tutu’s party vexes China-friendly South Africa (Globe & Mail)
South Africa Denies Chinese Pressure on Dalai Lama Visa (BBC)