Organisers have postponed a conference of Nobel peace laureates in South Africa after the government denied a visa to Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who won the prize in 1989 - five years after South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu won his and four years before Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk won theirs for their roles in ending the racist apartheid regime.

Although local media said the visa ban followed pressure from China, an increasingly important investor and trade partner, the government said it had not been influenced by Beijing and that the Dalai Lama's presence was just not in South Africa's best interest at the moment.

The conference, ahead of the 2010 World Cup, had been due to discuss how to use soccer to fight xenophobia and racism.

"We stand by our decision. Nothing is going to change. The Dalai Lama will not be invited to South Africa. We will not give him a visa between now and the World Cup," said government spokesman Thabo Masebe.

Whatever the reasoning, it angered the Nobel laureates in a country which has prided itself as a model of democracy and human rights since the end of apartheid in 1994.