JOHANNESBURG – For one heartfelt moment, all of South Africa’s cheers were replaced by trickling tears.
Whether it be among the 80,000-plus stuffed inside Soccer City or the hundreds of thousands watching elsewhere throughout the country, the frenzy surrounding World Cup 2010 temporarily took a back seat to the loss suffered by national hero Nelson Mandela.
Indeed, tragedy struck South Africa before the first ball was ever booted.
With the entire country poised to celebrate the opener of the World Cup Friday, the mood here suddenly dampened when it was revealed that national hero Nelson Mandela, 91, would not be attending the South Africa-Mexico game at Soccer City as originally scheduled.
Instead, a shocked Mandela is in mourning after his great granddaughter, Zenani Mandela, 13, was tragically killed in a car accident Thursday night in a collision that reportedly involved a drunk driver.
Zenani Mandela was being driven home from a World Cup kickoff concert at about 10:30 p.m. South African time when the car she was in flipped over.
Various reports this morning quoted police as saying the driver had been arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Police also said the unnamed male driver, who was reportedly unhurt, may also face culpable homicide charges.
“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,” said a statement released by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“(Nelson Mandela) will be there with you in spirit today.”
Upon hearing the tragic news, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was taken to hospital, where she was treated for shock.
Zenani had just attended the highly-anticipated show in suburban Soweto, one that featured Shakira, the Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys and African stars Amadou & Mariam and Hugh Masekela.
“The family has asked for privacy as they mourn this tragedy,” said the Foundation.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter informed the capacity throng of the tragedy prior to kickoff.
“Even if he is not here tonight, the spirit of Mandela is here with us in Soccer City,” Blatter said.
It was that very spirit that almost led Mandela’s beloved Bafana Bafana to victory. Only a late tying goal by Mexico spoiled the story, helping Mexico to a 1-1 draw with South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was an outspoken backer in the successful bid to land the 2010 World Cup for South Africa.