by Griffin Shea
JOHANNESBURG, S AFRICA - A grief-stricken Nelson Mandela pulled out of the 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-grand-daughter," 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 drunk 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.
His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, had to be treated in hospital for shock after hearing of her great granddaughter's death.
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 whites-only apartheid regime.
Mandela's lobbying was seen as the crucial factor when South Africa won 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.
And 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 hosting rights six years ago, South Africa has had to fend off accusations that its lack of infrastructure and high crime rate means it is no fit place to 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.
In an address to the crowds at the Soweto concert, where Mandela's great-granddaughter had been, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma said the event was more than just a test of his country's credentials.
"Africa is hosting this tournament. South Africa is the stage," said Zuma.
The first of the tournament's 63 matches takes place at Soccer City, a showpiece arena rebuilt to resemble an African cooking pot and which lies a stone's throw from the iconic Soweto township.
The one-time sprawling network of tin shacks - now home to millionaires and Africa's largest shopping mall - was the frontline of the battle against apartheid which ended in 1994 with the election of Mandela as president.
"I never thought this day would come. The games have started, nothing can stop us now. Bafana Bafana must win," said Martha Shange from Johannesburg, one of the first to enter when the gates opened.
Nearly 95,000 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 the vuvuzela plastic horn a must-have accessory.
Cape Town will later host France and Uruguay.
Roads around the stadiums have been declared off limits and bomb squads swept the seats before the gates open.
In a briefing to officers at Soccer City, police commissioner Bheki Cele warned that 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 expect a safe start," said Cele. "We are on high alert." Some 20 African heads of state are expected at the opening, along with UN chief Ban Ki-moon and US Vice President Joe Biden. --AFP
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