The death of Nelson Mandela’s 13-year-old great grand-daughter in an early hours car crash in Johannesburg as she was being driven back from last night’s kick off concert in Soweto – just a day after her birthday – has turned what should have been a triumph into a tragedy for South Africa’s first family. A billion fans will tune in to see the opening ceremony to the tournament at Soccer City on the edge of Soweto this afternoon, but Mandela’s foundation said the 91-year-old will now not attend and asked that the family be allowed to mourn in privacy.
Police are not saying much about the circumstances of the crash, only that it happened when the car in which Zenani Mandela was traveling tried to take an off-ramp to leave the M1 highway as it passed through the center of Johannesburg. No other vehicle was involved. Initial reports quoting the police said Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela was also in the car and was treated in hospital but the foundation denied this was the case. Police say the driver, who has not been named, is being investigated for probable homocide, indicating they suspect negligence. Bill Saporito and I were also driving on the same road minutes before the crash, also coming back from the concert at Orlando Stadium. The M1 – Johannesburg’s central thoroughfare of three to five lanes – was well-lit, well-signposted and traffic was thin.
Mandela, now 91 and increasingly frail, had left it to the last moment to say whether he would attend today’s ceremony. His appearances at any event are rare these days, and always dependent on his how he feels on the day. Close to his grand-children and great grand-children, that, now, can only be guessed at.
The tragedy is made all the greater by bitter irony that it should be Mandela, of all people, who is going to miss the opening of the World Cup. Mandela was instrumental in the campaigns to win the 2006 tournament, and when it failed, to try again for 2010. From the moment he became South Africa’s first black President in 1994, Mandela understood how sport was more than a game but something that could not only unite a nation but show it off to its best advantage. The rugby World Cup was held in South Africa in 1995 and Mandela’s donning of the Springbok jersey – until then, exclusively a white Afrikaner emblem – is by many as the moment post-apartheid South Africa realized it could live together as one nation. This soccer World Cup is intended to change global perceptions too, this time the world’s idea of Africa, and once and for all prove the falsehood of the old apartheid notion that there are greater and lesser human beings.