It should have been a moment of triumph — Nelson Mandela, basking in the cheers as Africa’s first World Cup opened.
Instead, South Africa’s beloved anti-apartheid icon stayed at home with his family Friday in northern Johannesburg during the opening ceremony and game, mourning his 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani, who died in a car crash on the way home from a tournament-eve concert in Soweto.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said the tragedy “made it inappropriate” for the former president, who is 91, to attend the opening ceremony in Johannesburg.
“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,” the foundation said, adding that Mandela “will be there with you in spirit today.”
Johannesburg Metro police spokeswoman Edna Mamonyane said the driver of the car had been arrested and charged with drunk driving. Mamonyane said the driver, whom police didn’t identify, could also face homicide charges.
“The Metro police found that he was drunk,” Mamonyane said. “He lost control of the vehicle and it collided with a barricade.”
Police spokesman Govindsamy Mariemuthoo, who earlier said the driver would appear in court for a preliminary hearing Friday, said that had been postponed for further investigations, and that the driver was not being held. Mariemuthoo said that was not unusual.
“It’s a decision of the prosecutor,” he said.
The Mandela foundation denied reports that the former president’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was in the car, but said she was treated in a hospital for shock after being told of the fatal accident. She was discharged after a few hours.
She was on the VIP list for the opening ceremony, and a press box official confirmed she was at Soccer City, but the foundation said later that Madikizela-Mandela did not attend.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who was in South Africa to lead his country’s delegation to the opening ceremony, were among those who offered condolences.
South African President Jacob Zuma, calling Mandela by his clan name Madiba — a term of affection — referred to the death in the Mandela family in an address to the crowd before the Mexico-South Africa game started.
He said Mandela had wanted to be there, “but unfortunately there was a tragedy in the Mandela family.”
“But he said the game must start. You must enjoy the game,” Zuma added.
Mandela has achieved glory as a politician and human rights campaigner, but suffered many personal tragedies.
In 1969, three years after arriving on Robben Island to serve a life sentence for sabotage, Mandela received a telegram from his younger son, Makgatho, informing him that his eldest son, Madiba Thembekile, died in a car crash.
Prison authorities refused to allow Mandela to attend the funeral.
“I do not have words to express the sorrow, or the loss I felt,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “It left a hole in my heart that can never be filled.”
Thirty-six years later, Makgatho died. Mandela announced his last surviving son died of AIDS-related complications, saying the only way to fight the disease’s stigma was to speak openly.
Mandela’s family life suffered during years devoted to politics, as an underground anti-apartheid fighter and in prison. Two marriages fell apart, the second to Winnie. He began his 27-year imprisonment only four years after marrying her.
Mandela was freed in 1990. Four years later, his lifelong battle over apartheid won, he became South Africa’s first black president. He served just one term, then devoted himself to international causes, including fighting AIDS.
He has announced his retirement and desire to devote time to his family several times. Increasingly, those close to him and other South Africans have said the reward for all he has done for his country should now be freedom from the public’s demands.
On his 80th birthday July 18, 1998, he married Graca Machel, a veteran of the anti-colonial struggle in her native Mozambique, former education minister, noted international child rights advocate and widow of Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel.
Graca Machel once told a television interviewer she helped Mandela reconnect with his family. Family photos released by his foundation Friday showed a relaxed and smiling Mandela with Zenani and other great-grandchildren.
Zenani was one of the anti-apartheid icon’s nine great-grandchildren.