President Jacob Zuma Reuters

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has launched a stinging attack on the Zuma government in South Africa, even comparing it to the apartheid regime for its failure to stand up to China.

He spoke out after Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to scrap plans to attend Tutu's 80th birthday celebrations after the host government would not grant him an entry visa.

Critics have said the government's attitude is yet another illustration that it is too subservient to China, which has become one of South Africa's most important economic partners.

China opposes any recognition by foreign governments of the Dalai Lama, whom it brands a subversive figure trying to split Tibet from China to create an independent state.

The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, has said that while he does not favour independence he opposes what he sees as the Chinese repression of Tibet's religious and cultural traditions.

Following the move, the Dalai Lama issued a statement via his New Delhi office explaining he and his entourage had planned to visit South Africa in October, and had thus submitted their visa applications at the end of August and their passports two weeks ago.

During his visit the Dalai Lama was expected to attend Thursday's birthday celebration for Tutu and host various public talks.

The Tibetan statement reads: "Since the South African government seems to find it inconvenient to issue a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness has decided to call off this visit to South Africa."

Despite the critics, officials in South Africa have insisted they followed normal procedures in reviewing the visa request.

Tutu was irate and called his government's behaviour disgraceful before directly attacking President Jacob Zuma at a news conference in Cape Town, comparing him to ousted Arab dictators.

"Well, Mubarak had a large majority. Gaddafi had a large majority. One day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are disgraceful," he said.

"Hey Mr. Zuma, you and your government don't represent me. You represent your own interests."

He also said during a TV interview, "This government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it with the apartheid government."

Tutu dismissed the reasons advanced by the authorities for not granting the visa, saying "Clearly, whether they say so or not, they were quite determined that they are not going to do anything that would upset the Chinese."

Many have accused South Africa of buckling under pressure from China, which critics say is now also influencing the country's foreign policy, leading the government to lose both its dignity and legitimacy.

While the Dalai Lama visited South Africa in 1996 to meet Nelson Mandela, in 2009, he was refused entry to a Nobel laureates' peace conference.