John Dewey has been quoted as saying of American democracy in the early 1900’s:
“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”
The first part of the quote (politics is the shadow of big business) is interesting because it implies that politics and government have no function of their own; they simply react to keep up with what big business is doing. By implication, politicians are nothing more than those who ensure that the shadow keeps the society below in the dark.
I was reminded of this quote today because I read on the BBC newsfeed that the South African government had denied a visa to the Dalai Lama who wanted to attend the 2010 Peace Conference. The official reason given (by a presidential spokesman) for the denial is:
“The attention of the whole world is on our preparations for the 2010 world cup, the presence of the Dalai Lama will shift that focus away from us – it will bring other issues to the focus, we really don’t want that to happen.”
because, as the South African government well understands, hosting the world cup in Africa for the first time is far more important than the gross human rights violations ocurring in Tibet. Officially, his presence would not be in the best interests of South Africa (and of course, only the Department of Home Affairs can be the judge of what is in the best interests of South Africans at large). The official reason didn’t fly for very long: Most local papers, from the Sowetan to the Mail and Guardian and even the state controlled SABC News immediately picked up the story as ‘ANC bows to pressure from China’. All three of South Africa’s Nobel peace laureates – Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, canceled their intentions to attend the event, and the Nobel Committee pulled their endorsement of it. Where they got it wrong, I believe, is how the process ocurred. The de Klerk Foundation released a statement:
“South Africa is a sovereign constitutional democracy and should not allow other countries to dictate to it regarding who it should, and should not admit to its territory.”
But I suspect that there was no communication between Beijing and Pretoria. There was probably no communication between Pretoria and downtown Johannesburg for that matter. Politics, following Dewey’s prediction, simply foresaw the problems for big business should the Dalai Lama appear (South Africa is China’s largest business partner in Africa), and to prevent these, to act in “South Africa’s best interests” as they frame it, they simply denied the visa. So no external pressure needs to have been brought to bear, as long as politics is playing its proper role.
What is more interesting is the second part of Dewey’s statement – attenuation of the shadow (politics) will not change the substance (big business). Although it is heartening to see that South African journalists and moral figures (and I am guessing most of the population) expressing their outrage at an obvious injustice, I do not expect it to have any effect whatsoever. Even if the ANC were to be unseated during the upcoming election, I would completely expect whatever new government to continue in exactly the same vein, much like the ANC government continued to tend the interests of the same big businesses that the Apartheid NP government had tended.
Perhaps I am reading too much into the big business conspiracy. Perhaps the government really are afraid that the Dalai Lama will steal their media limelight. Except for the fact that there is in recent history a case where the roles were completely reversed, and the big business prediction held true: In 2002, Tokyo Sexwale applied for a visa to the USA, in order to appear at the opening of trading at the New York Stock Exchange on the day that Gold Fields (the second largest producer in the country with a net profit of $480 million US in 2008) would begin to be traded on that market. Because Sexwale had been convicted previously for smuggling weapons for the ANC resistance, he was, in accordance with INS rules, denied the visa. Of course, this time the visa denial was opposed to the interests of big business so the machinery of the state was fully deployed in his support. The official ANC press release for that day (9 May 2002), and recall that at this stage Sexwale was not a member of government but only a member of the party, reads:
“It is unacceptable that members of the African National Congress who spent years in apartheid prisons for legitimate actions against an unjust system should be victimised in this manner.”
Then foreign minister, Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma, rightly told reporters
“We reject this with the contempt it deserves.”
The same courtesies apparently do not apply to the citizens of Tibet who engaged in legitimate actions against an unjust system. Also, it is too bad the the only person fit to determine what is an act of contempt is the South African foreign minister (even if two acts are essentially the same). In the end, a personal intervention by Condoleeza Rice allowed Sexwale to enter the US and appear waving the Gold Fields flag. I doubt that the Dalai Lama will have a similar reprieve.