By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's decision to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama has touched off a search for the soul of the ruling African National Congress.
ANC supporters, leading newspapers and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said the move was symbolic of the failings of the party that helped end apartheid but was now failing to live up to the ideals of the liberation movement it had once been.
Under President Jacob Zuma, the ANC has already faced criticism for fostering cronyism, undermining the party's revered global image forged in the anti-apartheid struggle and doing little to help the masses of poor whose conditions have improved little since apartheid ended 17 years ago.
A furious Tutu twisted the knife over the visa affair, accusing the ANC of conduct "worse than the apartheid government," while other commentators took the ruling party to task for failing to live up to its illustrious past.
"The ANC is being torn apart with internal factional struggles and the basic nature of that struggle is fighting for the spoils of patronage," said political analyst Nic Borain.
"Why this is so painful for the ANC is that many are still living with the idea of the ANC representing a higher moral calling," he said.
The Dalai Lama's office on Tuesday said he was cancelling his planned visit this week to attend Tutu's 80th birthday party after the South African government sat on his visa application for weeks without making a decision.
South Africa had come under pressure from its biggest trading partner China not to issue the visa to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, derided by Beijing as a dangerous splittist. Last week, China pledged to invest $2.5 billion in South Africa during a visit to Beijing by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
Tutu, a leading voice of moral authority, told the ANC to "watch out" because it had lost the plot.
"Mr. Zuma, you and your government don't represent me. You represent your own interests. I am warning you out of love, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government," a visibly emotional Archbishop Tutu told a nationally televised news conference.
The Dalai Lama was once embraced as a symbol of peace in post-apartheid South Africa and for many the visa move was symbolic of how the country has compromised its ideals as the giants of the liberation struggle have faded from the scene and been replaced by a new generation of leaders.
The ANC enjoys virtual one-party rule but Zuma's government has faced a record number of protests from the poor, angry that the ANC has been slow to provide schools, electricity and running water.
Zuma has had little to show for hefty welfare spending, while increasingly facing charges, even from his allies in organized labor, that he has allowed the politically connected to line their pockets through government contracts.
THE FALL FROM MANDELA
Since Nelson Mandela left office as president in 1999, South Africa has shown little improvement, or even slipped back, in areas that have been the top priorities of the ANC.
Education has represented the largest segment of state spending for years, accounting for about 20 percent of the budget, but there has been little to show for all the money And
Zuma has repeatedly begged teachers simply to show up to school and stay until the final bell.
South Africa ranked 130 out of 139 countries in the 2010 World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report.
When Mandela left office, nearly 75 percent of South Africans said the government was doing a good job in providing basic services. That figure is now at about 55 percent, according to a government survey.
South Africa's diplomatic standing has suffered under Zuma, with a series of recent moves, including the Dalai Lama decision, undercutting the international credibility of Africa's largest economy.
South Africa, which benefited from global powers using their economic leverage to bring down apartheid, has backed a series of leaders accused of human rights violations, saying it wanted to maintain regional stability.
Critics said foreign policy has been more concerned with past alliances and trade than with advancing democracy and protecting human rights.
Pretoria has shown continued support for rulers with poor human rights records, such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Swaziland's King Mswati III, while delaying recognition of Alassane Ouattara as the internationally acknowledged winner of Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election.
It abstained from a U.N. vote to punish Syria, a long time ANC supporter, for its slaughter of anti-government protesters, tarnishing a visit this week to South Africa by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has pushed for the measure.
And it backed down on the Dalai Lama despite the precedent of other China trading partners allowing visits and then suffering rhetorical attacks from Beijing but no loss of business.
"Is it really in South Africa's interest to send a message to the world that our principles are up for sale to the highest bidder?" financial daily Business Day said in an editorial.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)