A grief-stricken Nelson Mandela pulled out of the Soccer World Cup opening Friday after the death of his great-granddaughter cast a tragic shadow over the start of the world’s biggest sporting event.
Thirteen-year-old Zenani Mandela was killed in a car that overturned in Johannesburg as it took her home from a spectacular eve-of-tournament concert in Soweto. South African police said the driver was drunk.
“Mr Nelson Mandela this morning learned of the tragic death in an accident of his great-granddaughter,” said a statement from the former president’s foundation.
“It would therefore be inappropriate for him to personally attend the Fifa World Cup opening celebrations.”
Mandela is 91 and has been in frail health.
“We are sure that South Africans and people all over the world will stand in solidarity with Mr Mandela and his family in the aftermath of this tragedy … Madiba will be there with you in spirit today.”
The driver, said by Mandela’s office to be a family member, was charged with culpable homicide and drunken driving, according to police.
The tragedy came less than 12 hours before gates opened for the first match between South Africa and Mexico. Mandela had planned to attend at least part of the game.
The death is the latest tragedy to hit the Nobel laureate, one of whose sons died of Aids while another died in a car crash during Mandela’s 27 years in jail as a prisoner of the apartheid regime.
“The nation shares your loss and mourns with you, especially on the day on which our dreams and hopes come alive in the opening of the first Fifa World Cup on African soil,” said South African President Jacob Zuma.
In a letter to Mandela, Fifa president Sepp Blatter said he had been stunned “to hear the unspeakably tragic news”.
“We fully understand that you cannot be with us at the opening ceremony … You will, however, be with us in spirit, for which we are incredibly grateful,” he said.
Mandela’s lobbying was seen as the crucial factor when Fifa awarded South Africa the right to host the tournament.
“It was his dream to unite a nation through sport that has been brought to life again today,” said a front-page editorial in the Star.
The main headline of the mass-selling Daily Sun read simply: “Do It For Him!” on top of a picture of Mandela clutching the famous gold trophy.
Ever since it was awarded the tournament six years ago, South Africa has had to fend off accusations that its lack of infrastructure and high crime rate meant it could not stage an event of such magnitude.
The hosts hope that a successful tournament with world-renowned names such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and England’s Wayne Rooney will overturn perceptions of Africa as the hopeless continent — a place regarded by many as synonymous with war, famine and Aids.
All the stadiums and World Cup infrastructure projects have been completed on time, although crime is still a worry. Journalists have been robbed at gunpoint and thieves have even stolen cash from the rooms of the Greek team.
The first of the tournament’s matches takes place at Soccer City, a showpiece arena rebuilt to resemble an African cooking pot.
Nearly 85 000 supporters will be packed into the stadium to watch the opening ceremony and then the South Africa-Mexico match, which promises to be an ear-splitting affair with vuvuzelas a must-have accessory.
Roads around the stadiums have been declared off limits and bomb squads swept the seats before the gates open.
In a briefing to officers, police Commissioner Bheki Cele warned the eyes of the world would be on them. He said 34 000 police would be deployed around the stadium, with 10 000 reservists at other public areas.
“We are on high alert,” said Cele. About 20 African heads of state and US Vice President Joe Biden are to be at the opening. — AFP