BOTH the noise and silence following the cancellation of the Dalai Lama's visit to attend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's birthday celebration speak volumes about our collective search for national identity, perhaps more than it does about the nature of our relationship with China. It says a lot about who we think we ought to be and what we are becoming in a world that looks very different from the normative environment that shaped our democratic state in the 1990s.

The matter may be specific, but the issues that underpin it are not peculiar to SA. Seismic changes in the global configuration of power over a short period have altered our conceptions of what are "acceptable", "appropriate" and the "norm" in international relations. In this fast-changing world, normative frameworks are struggling to adapt to these new realities that, just a few years ago, were unimaginable. These are uncertain times, with global thought-leaders increasingly having to admit their confusion on opinion pages. Political-risk consultation has become a lucrative business.

Over the past week, we have been confronted head-on and in a very public way with the implications of having to navigate these new realities. Although SA and China subscribe to the principle of noninterference, it appeared as if our government at worst tried to frustrate and at best simply did not lift a finger to assist the Tibetan spiritual leader. China had its way in what is a domestic question - the birthday celebration of one of our revered citizens. We all know why. This incident forced us to grapple with questions to which there are no simple answers at this stage. Do principles and values still matter in our policies at home and abroad? If they do, which ones do we subscribe to? And if we agree that values are too important to surrender, how do we integrate and make sense of them in the times we live in?

Whether real or mythologised, the trademark of our transition in 1994 has been the triumph of humanity over oppression. "This miracle", as some refer to it, inspired the world to believe that peace does not have to be achieved through the barrel of a gun. "Brand SA" has become associated with a commitment to values that promote the dignity of people through inclusive solutions.

Former president Nelson Mandela continues to personify this. And so does Tutu. As we projected ourselves to the rest of the world in one of our proudest moments, during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, they were the icons that we held up to the rest of the world to say: "This is us. This is what makes us proud to be South African." The celebration of their birthdays is as much a reminder of that what we cherish as they are opportunities to honour them. Although both have retired from public life, they remain an embodiment of what we believe; they remain our moral leaders. Few countries have this privilege.

One of the primary responsibilities of our political leaders is to translate the ideas that we collectively stand for into tangible realities. In our appraisal of politicians, it is important to bear in mind that change is messy, often difficult to recognise and, even when we do, its direction is not always obvious. It does, therefore, require of any government to communicate decisions in a way that offers context and insight into how actions and events affirm the greater values the state aspires to. If not, apparent contradictions can undermine the legitimacy of the foundations upon which a state is built.

Steering states through times of change to emerge more competitive, without having to sacrifice core principles and values, requires wisdom, insight, and accountability. If this is the sum total of leadership, then the world seems to be in short supply right now. The Dalai Lama incident suggests that while we once may have been revered for the quality and integrity of our leadership, the present generation, at best, conforms to the norm. Silence, where guidance was required, has cost us a unique opportunity to take the lead in an area where others have in the past sought our counsel.

Admittedly our government was in an unenviable position because anyone wanting to do business with China knows that the issue of the Dalai Lama is non-negotiable for Beijing. Official communication on the matter therefore probably never occurred. With major trade and investment deals in the offing, it was taken as a given and, sadly, the outcome of the Dalai Lama's visa application was never in doubt. Neither was the public backlash that was bound to follow in the wake of any such official decision by the government. It was a situation that required leadership. Our government, however, absconded and offered a timid response. It fudged the issue to avoid accountability for an unpopular decision. Ultimately this route will prove to be the more damaging one.

The collateral damage of having to defend itself against charges of caving in to a new form of colonialism would probably have been inevitable, but ownership of the decision would have allowed the government to articulate the context within which the decision was made. It would not have satisfied everybody, but it could have used the opportunity to argue that investment brings growth, jobs and development, which, if achieved, also honour the promise of greater human dignity - and, by extension, that for which people such as Tutu also made huge sacrifices. At the moment we are not spoilt for choice. Our historical trade partners in Europe and the US are stumbling from one economic crisis to the other. China is not and its investment can be leveraged to benefit those in SA who still do not have the freedom to determine their own destiny.

Such explanations may not have washed with everybody but at least it would have underscored that, although we differ on strategies, we are all on the same side. Anybody can make a wrong call when trying to do the right thing. Such mistakes are forgiven in time. It is more difficult to do so when bona fides and principles are being drawn into question. The ineloquent way in which the buck was passed in this instance, gave the impression that our government was either unable or unwilling to take a public stand on the values that drives its policy. South Africans did not expect of their government to confront China on the question of Tibet; they wanted to know how a decision either way forwards the cause of political and economic freedom in SA. The government did not provide its citizens with answers in this and its clumsy verbal gymnastics cast a shadow over what ought to have been the celebration of a figure who represents the very values we want affirmed by our elected representatives.

In the end, the Dalai Lama did come to SA - in many ways, technology makes visas obsolete. Everybody who witnessed the engagement between him and Tutu via satellite feed in the University of the Western Cape's Big Hall witnessed just how futile it is to restrict physical movement if the objective is to suppress ideas. They spoke about humanity, about kindness, about children and the emancipation of women. Every now and then it was interrupted by bursts of laughter. It was not a rally for Tibet - it was a conversation about what went wrong with humanity and how we can fix it. The effect of the format was even more powerful because it represented an act of defiance that confirmed that, as in the past, these men and what they represent, cannot be silenced.

Towards the end of the discussion, the Dalai Lama wished Tutu a long life and jokingly remarked that he hoped Tutu would invite him to his 90th birthday celebration. If the world is fortunate enough to have them with us for that long, we must hope that, by that time, governments will have learnt how to negotiate and communicate tough moral decisions in an increasingly complex world.

. Hofmeyr heads the Policy and Analysis Unit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.