Johannesburg: Desmond Tutu's last-ditch appeal to South Africa to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama on the eve of his 80th birthday was rejected on Thursday, marring the start of the celebrations.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader on Tuesday cancelled a planned trip to South Africa because of delays with his visa, provoking a furious response from Tutu who blasted President Jacob Zuma's government as worse than apartheid and accused him of kowtowing to China.

British billionaire Richard Branson joined the chorus of condemnation in a blog post, saying he had written to Zuma urging him to allow the Dalai Lama's visit.

"How very sad therefore to see South Africa bowing to pressure from China to stop the Dalai Lama visiting South Africa to celebrate Archbishop Desmond Tutu's birthday this Friday, where together they were going to discuss peace and reconciliation," he said.

Zuma has refused to take a stand on the visa, saying Monday that "I don't think that you can get a definite answer from me."

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe told local media on Wednesday that he had no problem with the Dalai Lama's visit, making him the only government official to indicate that he should be allowed to come.

Tutu's Peace Centre then urged Motlanthe to intervene to grant the visa, but his spokesman Thabo Masebe said that "the deputy president does not become involved in visa applications."

"The deputy president did not have a problem with the Dalai Lama," Masebe said. "This does not suggest he would be in a position to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama."

The Dalai Lama had visited South Africa three times before and was welcomed by former president Nelson Mandela.
But South Africa denied him a visa in 2009, openly admitting it feared alienating key trade partner China.