The Dalai Lama scandal has been thrashed around the South African media lately with accusations and counter-claims flying. But it’s important to clarify what this question is about and what it’s not. Most defences of the government’s visa denial are emphasising what it’s not about.
It’s not about banning a reactionary cleric who opposed freeing the Tibetan serfs. That language comes straight out of the Chinese government propaganda brochures. It’s especially embarrassing to see that claim repeated in Africa, where European colonial powers commonly justified stealing African land, exploiting labour and crushing local cultures by pontificating about how they liberated the poor African women, or slaves, or whoever they decided was suffering under backward kings or cruel chiefs. Like European powers in Africa, China did not invade Tibet to free the serfs.
It’s not about rejecting a priestly hierarchy that held back Tibetan economic development. Sure, the priestly class system did stall and stultify development in many ways, but what people wouldn’t rather sort that out themselves, rather than have some foreign power force change down their throats? Twentieth century conquerors always take credit for all development – we brought them hospitals! – ignoring what ‘development’ cost those people, what poverty and loss and social dislocations also resulted, and what might have happened anyway.
It’s not a religious issue. The Dalai Lama happens to espouse a pacific, universalistic vision of human rights and cultural survival that many people, including me, find compelling, in his role as the public face of a people denied their right to self-determination. But the Tibetans could worship dung beetles and it would make no difference to the moral issues here.
It’s certainly not a ‘white-people’s issue’. Tibetans would be shocked and scandalised to hear black South Africans saying that. If white voices are more prominent here on this one (and I’m not convinced they are) that pattern traces to other factors—how different populations around the world relate to global human rights scandals outside their own region, perhaps. But it’s simply wacko for South Africans to pitch indigenous Tibetan rights into the bin on grounds that it’s a ‘white issue’.
It’s not even about the Dalai Lama, really. So what is this really about?
It’s about power. China's power. The illegitimacy of that power. And South Africa's power, domestically and on the world stage.
It’s pretty obvious that the case of Tibet centres on the power of a foreign state power to overrun a neighbouring society, smash its culture, burn its art, subordinate its population to its own political doctrines, and implant millions of its own citizens to permanently transform the land’s socio-cultural landscape beyond repair or recovery. That’s not ‘freeing the serfs’. That’s bald aggression, a settler-colonial take-over. As long as this kind of invasion is allowed, indigenous peoples the world over are unsafe.
It’s also about the power of a foreign state to use its colossal economic weight and regional hegemony to block and stall international opposition to this behaviour -- even to lasso local business interests to parrot its mantras about bringing the enlightened values of communist party rule to benighted feudal (‘primitive’) societies. As long as this is allowed, people everywhere must doubt whether their rights will be protected.
But especially, it’s about South Africa’s power.
It’s hardly cloud-cuckoo land to consider that South Africa has something to lose with all these ‘pragmatic’ decisions, whether in sopping up US platitudes about Palestine, supporting nonsensical and dangerous sanctions against Iran, or playing China’s tune on Tibet. The great theorists of international affairs have long recognised that three kinds of power operate in relations among states: military, economic, and the ‘power of opinion’ (as the famed theorist E. H. Carr put it) or ‘soft power’. After the transition, South Africa had first-world ranking on the last of those. Precisely because South Africa is only a modest regional power economically and militarily, that third kind of power was something to be preserved.
So when people point out that France also ran into trouble with China for inviting the Dalai Lama and had to apologise, that’s hardly an example for South Africa. Europe doesn’t need the third kind of power because it has so much of the second. South Africa does.
What can South Africa lose on the international stage from one lousy visa denial? International politics, like domestic politics, is about perception. A country still claiming the mantle of a noble revolution is perceived (accurately) to have capitulated on a matter symbolic of its own idealistic identity narrative, on the dubious grounds that Chinese investment will otherwise wobble. But on the international stage, acting weak makes you weak. Capitulate on yet another issue and you earn another increment of disdain.
Rumours abroad suggest that South Africa has already lost much or most of its ‘power of opinion’ in the world politics. As one South African colleague said to me bitterly, so now we’re just another crappy little country in the eyes of the world. That’s hard cold political loss.
Something else may also be afoot. Some folks in the South African government appear to be swallowing long-absurd arguments, pouring out of the US, that economic logics are rightly the driver of all statecraft. Corporations claiming the right to run a state’s foreign policy are hardly new, of course, but there’s a kind of wild zeal and arrogance in this Masters of the Universe claim that finance and economics are the first, correct, and only standard for governance, and that everything else is fluff, naïve, cloud cuckoo.
This view is sadly and horribly wrong, a sure quick path to national dissolution. Corporations may provide jobs but they can’t inspire the loyalty of a population. Citizens don’t identify personally with a market; they only use it. South African citizens will not cooperate with essential state needs—pay taxes, obey laws, vote, postpone economic gratification in hope for a better future--unless the country itself is something they believe in, identify with, and value. That’s why faster growth with a dissolving national ethos will generate more inequality and trouble than a bit slower growth with a strong national ethos. A century ago, Gramsci pointed out that a state’s domestic hegemony is built from a matrix of ideologies promoted and represented by the state. The ANC remembers this in its party rhetoric, but not as a government. It’s cloud cuckoo to forget it.
So South Africa has much to lose, both domestically and internationally, which the Dalai Lama affair crystallises. Those who care about South Africa are rightly worried.