From Daily News
The fate of a peace conference to be held in Johannesburg on Friday as part of celebrations leading up to the 2010 World Cup was hanging in the balance today after the withdrawal of high profile guests due to the government’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.
One of the conference’s organising bodies, the Premier Soccer League, was due to meet this morning after the withdrawal of all invited Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former president FW de Klerk.
The government’s opposition to the Dalai Lama’s visit has also drawn heavy criticism from political parties including COPE and the Freedom Front Plus, but is supported by the SACP, which accused critics of acting “in the interests of imperialism”.
Indications were that the Norwegian-based Nobel Committee was also reconsidering its attendance at the conference, but this could not be confirmed and was supposed to be discussed at this morning’s meeting.
It emerged on Monday that the current Nobel Peace Prize holder, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, had pulled out of the conference last week because his wife was ill, his office said.
This leaves no laureates on the programme.
Tutu and De Klerk announced they would not participate unless the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, was given a visa.
However, the government stuck to its guns on Monday saying that it did not want the Dalai Lama in the country for the event – because, government spokesperson Thabo Masebe said, it would “divert attention” from South Africa’s World Cup celebrations.
It was widely believed, however, that the government had refused the Dalai Lama a visa under pressure from the People’s Republic of China, which had annexed Tibet and claimed sovereignty over the tiny Himalayan country.
The Dalai Lama, living in exile, is a staunch opponent of Chinese control over Tibet.
The Tibetan leader’s representative in South Africa, Sonam Tenzing, had already said at the weekend that it would be too late for the Dalai Lama to get to South Africa if he were issued a visa now.
It was believed that Nelson Mandela was also expected to participate in the conference, but Nelson Mandela Foundation spokesperson Sahm Venter said yesterday that the former president had never been on the programme.
She confirmed, however, that Mandela, Tutu and De Klerk had issued invitations to the conference to the Dalai Lama, Ahtisaari and other laureates on behalf of the PSL as part of a series of events to celebrate South Africa’s peace laureates – which also includes the late ANC leader Albert Luthuli – and South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy, non-racism, as well as the role soccer could play to promote peace.
Achmat Dangor, chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said that while Mandela did sign the invitation, the 91-year-old Madiba, who is said to be in good health, no longer attended such events.
De Klerk announced on Monday that he would not participate if the Dalai Lama could not attend because the denial of a visa to him “makes a mockery of the whole purpose of the Peace Conference”.
Asked whether the Nobel Committee members would still be attending the conference as scheduled or whether the conference would still go ahead without any peace laureates, Kjetil Siem, CEO of the PSL and of the conference, said there would be a meeting at 10am today and then a press conference where announcements would be made.
The series of events to celebrate the World Cup also includes a gala dinner on Friday evening to be hosted by actors Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman and a soccer match between South Africa and Norway on Saturday.
The SA Friends of Tibet have called for the indefinite postponement of the conference, and for the South African and Norwegian teams to boycott Saturday’s Mandela Soccer Cup match. – Additional reporting by Esther Lewis