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South Africa cancels peace conference over visa row — a bad omen for the 2010 World Cup?

It all started as a rather innocent idea: A little more than a year before the FIFA World Cup — the largest sporting event ever organized on African soil — South Africa would invite Nobel Peace Prize laureates from all continents to a peace conference about the role soccer can play in bringing nations together.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

The South African government refused to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama under apparent pressure from the Chinese authorities. Enraged by the decision, South Africa’s own Nobel Peace Prize laureates threatened to boycott the event. The organizers had little choice but to pull the plug on March 24.

“Today, the conveners of the South Africa Peace Conference have decided to postpone the conference that was to have been held at the Constitution Hill on Friday 27 March 2009 as a result of the controversy surrounding the participation of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama,” declared a weary-looking Irvin Khoza, chairman of the 2010 World Cup Local Organizing Committee, at a press conference Tuesday that took place — ironically — just two blocks away from the Chinese consulate in Johannesburg.

Before delivering his verdict, Khoza spent 15 minutes reading correspondence between South Africa’s three living Nobel Peace Prize laureates — former presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk as well as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu — and Tibet’s spiritual leader, revealing just how much everyone was looking forward to the event, which was to include a guided tour of Soweto led by Tutu and the first ever soccer match between South Africa and Norway, home to the committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize.

Others set to attend the conference included South Africa-born movie star Charlize Theron and Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan — Khoza’s apparent favorite (an invitation was also extended to “the Honorable Barack Obama,” but there was no word on his response.)

By denying the Dalai Lama’s visa application, South Africa may have pleased the People’s Republic of China, one of South Africa’s largest trading partners, but it also struck a blow to its own extraordinary legacy and the commitment to freedom that led to the demise of the apartheid regime.

Chief Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela and one of the event’s organizers, said as much at Tuesday’s press conference: “For me personally and the role my grandfather has played in founding our democracy together with his colleagues, this rejection by the government — not to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama — is really tainting our own effort of democracy. It’s a sad day for South Africa. It’s a sad day for Africa.” He added: “I don’t think that as a sovereign and independent country we need to succumb to international pressure.”

While stressing that the peace conference was separate from the organization of the World Cup, Khoza acknowledged that the bad publicity surrounding the conference was not a good thing for the 2010 event. This comes after it emerged that South Africans are not exactly rushing to buy World Cup tickets and FIFA — soccer’s governing body — has chastised the local organizers for doing little to promote the competition.

Khoza expressed optimism that the peace conference may still take place before the World Cup, but another one of the organizers admitted that the words “postponed” and “cancelled” were used interchangeably.