Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an anti-apartheid hero often described as South Africa's conscience, slammed the ANC-led government Tuesday as "disgraceful" and said it is worse than the country's former oppressive white regime for not issuing a visa to the Dalai Lama.
The African National Congress responded by calling Tutu's comparisons to the apartheid regime and to toppled Arab dictatorships "very unfortunate and totally misplaced," and said the government should be given time to explain its actions.
South African foreign ministry officials have denied accusations they are stalling on the visa because of pressure from China, a major trading partner. Tutu, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his nonviolent campaign against white racist rule, turns 80 on Friday and had invited his fellow Nobel laureate to South Africa to celebrate his birthday.
Tutu angrily denounced ANC leaders in a nationally televised news conference hours after the Dalai Lama's office said he was calling off the visit because he didn't expect to get a visa. Tutu, who struggled for years alongside the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups to defeat oppressive white rule, said South Africans expect their government to stand for the human rights as laid out in the constitution.
"This government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it with the apartheid government," Tutu said, describing anti-regime activists being denied passports at the last minute by the white racist regime.
Barely concealing his fury, Tutu repeatedly told ANC leaders to "watch out" and warned them about becoming too complacent after winning every election since 1994 with large majorities.
He indicated they could face the fate of Arab dictatorships.
"Well, Mubarak had a large majority. Gadhafi had a large majority," Tutu said, referring to toppled Arab leaders in Egypt and Libya. "One day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are disgraceful."
Tutu accused the government of failing to side with "Tibetans who are being oppressed viciously by the Chinese." He also charged President Jacob Zuma with ignoring the contribution religious leaders made to toppling the white Nationalist Party.
"Hey, Mr. Zuma, you and your government don't represent me. I am warning you like I warned the Nationalists," he said, referring to the party that ruled during apartheid.
In a statement, ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu appealed to Tutu "to calm down and work together with the ANC and its government, first, on the Dalai Lama issue and secondly, we appeal to the archbishop not to pray for the demise of the ANC led government, but instead to work together with the ANC and pray for the ANC led government to deliver a better life for all the people of South Africa."
Rights groups, academics, opposition parties and newspapers in South Africa had joined Tutu in pressing their government to grant the Dalai Lama a visa. The spiritual leader says he wants increased autonomy for Tibet, the homeland from which he has been exiled since 1959. China accuses him of being a separatist.
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 (the government) 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 last month to China, a major trade partner for South Africa.
Days before Tutu's birthday celebrations, which were expected to be attended by rock stars and statesmen, South Africa still had not issued the Dalai Lama a visa, saying the process was delayed by problems with the timing and completeness of the application. Officials from the offices of Tutu and the Dalai Lama have denied the application was late or incomplete.
It was not the first time Tutu has criticized the ANC, and he said he would continue to speak out when he thought the party was wrong.
Before April 2009 elections propelled Zuma to the presidency, Tutu had said he was so skeptical of the ANC leader he was considering not casting a ballot. Tutu cited a rape trial in which Zuma was acquitted and corruption charges that were dropped just before the vote.
Tutu did cast a ballot but told reporters that day: "Quite unlike previous elections, there's a lot of heart-searching."
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.
The Nobel committee recognized the Dalai Lama in 1989 for his peaceful efforts to "preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people."
Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP