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Dalai Lama cancels S. Africa trip over visa flap

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, right, arrives to give a religious talk at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, Oct. 4, 2011.
AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia

JOHANNESBURG - The Dalai Lama has called off a visit to South Africa because he does not expect to get a visa, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader's office said Tuesday.

In a statement from New Delhi, the Dalai Lama's office said he had planned to leave his Indian exile home Thursday, but after failing to receive a visa this week he was "now convinced that for whatever reason or reasons, the South African government finds it inconvenient to issue" a visa.

In response, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu says the country's governing ANC party is worse than the apartheid regime for delaying on issuing the Dalai Lama a visa.

Tutu addressed a nationally televised news conference Tuesday, hours after the Dalai Lama's office said the Tibetan spiritual leader was calling off a visit to South Africa because he did not expect to get a visa.

Tutu had invited the fellow Nobel Peace laureate to South Africa to attend his 80th birthday party festivities.

South African foreign ministry officials have denied accusations they were bowing to pressure from China, which accuses the Dalai Lama of being a separatist.

The Dalai Lama insists he is only seeking increased autonomy for Tibet, the homeland from which he has been exiled since 1959.

Dumisa Ntesebeza, chairman of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which had planned to host a speech by the Dalai Lama on Saturday, the day after Tutu's birthday, said he could not immediately comment. The foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela refused comment.

Rights groups, academics, opposition parties and newspapers in South Africa had pressed their government to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.

In a statement last week, Loyisa Nongxa, vice chancellor of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said that instead of trying to "silence" the Dalai Lama, South Africa should "welcome the opportunity and allow all voices to be heard in our democracy -- a right for which we fought with our lives."

The university had hoped to host the Dalai Lama for a second speech during his visit.

In an editorial this week, the Sunday Times of Johannesburg said: "The government has dithered for weeks over the Tibetan spiritual leader's visa application, leading to suspicion that Pretoria has once again been put under immense pressure by China not to allow the Dalai Lama to visit."

South Africa's deputy president was on a state visit to China last month. China is a major trade partner for South Africa.

The Dalai Lama was welcomed to South Africa in 1996 and met with the country's first black and democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. But in 2009, the South African government kept the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates' peace conference, saying it would detract attention from the 2010 soccer World Cup.