24 March 2009

South Africa: Govt Scores Own Goal Over Peace Conference

Cape Town — An attempt by South African soccer authorities to show how the 2010 Fifa World Cup could promote peace and harmony not only in South Africa, but through Africa and the world, was transformed into a public relations own-goal Tuesday – by the government's foreign policy.

A month ago, soccer boss Irvin Khoza, acting in his capacity as chairman of the Fifa World Cup local organizing committee, proclaimed the "2009 South African Peace Conference" on the Fifa website as an event which would put "huge focus" on the country as host of the 2010 tournament and on football as a promoter of peace. The conference was scheduled for later this week.

Taking advantage of South Africa's status as home to three living Nobel peace laureates, a delegation headed by Nelson Mandela's grandson, Chief Mandla Mandela, had travelled last year to the Oslo offices of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the prize, to deliver an invitation to the conference. It was signed by President Kgalema Motlanthe and the three laureates – Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the former president, F. W. de Klerk.

The South African laureates also invited other high-profile winners of the peace prize. One was the former Finnish president and newest laureate, Martti Ahtisaari, who had earlier in his life presided over Namibia's transition to independence as the United Nations representative for the territory. The other was the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet, feted by human rights activists in Western democracies and elsewhere for his stand against the Chinese occupation of his country in 1950.

Mandela was never expected to attend the conference – at 90, he has retired almost completely from public life. Ahtisaari pulled out last week for family reasons.

But the Dalai Lama, Tutu and De Klerk were scheduled to be there – along with movie stars Charlize Theron – described on the Fifa website as "South Africa's Hollywood princess" – and Morgan Freeman – "who will play the role of Nelson Mandela in a movie about the life of the world renowned statesman". Theron and Freeman were also to co-host a gala dinner.

Then the South African Government came into the picture, and refused the Dalai Lama a visa. Breaking the news, Johannesburg's Sunday Independent newspaper quoted Dai Bing, the minister counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria, as confirming that his government had appealed to the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into the country.

Officials in Pretoria denied that Chinese pressure had anything to do with the decision. "We in the South African government have not invited the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa, because it would not be in the interests of South Africa," said Motlanthe's spokesman, Thabo Masebe.

Tutu – once a guest of the Chinese government after winning his peace prize – responded with characteristic vigour: "If His Holiness's visa is refused, then... I will condemn government's behaviour as disgraceful in line with our country's abysmal record at the United Nations Security Council, a total betrayal of our struggle history," he told the Sunday Independent. "We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed."

By Monday afternoon, it was clear that if the peace conference was held, it would be without peace laureates or the Nobel committee.

De Klerk announced that he would join Tutu in pulling out. The secretary of the Nobel Committee, Geir Lundestad, said that without the Dalai Lama, the committee could not attend. The Norway Post reported him as adding: "It is disappointing that South Africa, which through the long fight against apartheid has received so much solidarity from the world, doesn't want to give that solidarity to others."

Fifa's local organizing committee shifted the spotlight to South Africa's Premier Soccer League (PSL), saying that actually they were the principal organizers. On Tuesday morning, Irvin Khoza announced that the conference was postponed, ending an episode the irony of which had been unconsciously highlighted by the president's spokesman.

Explaining why the visa had been denied, he said, according to Agence France-Presse: "The attention of the world is on South Africa because of it being the host country for the 2010 World Cup, and we wouldn't want anything to distract from that."

The writer is Tutu's biographer and a former Tutu employee.

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