JOHANNESBURG (AP) — For the first time since the World Cup began, South Africa’s beloved Nelson Mandela appeared in public Thursday. Instead of a triumphal moment in the world’s spotlight, a somber, frail Mandela attended the funeral of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter, killed in a car crash with an allegedly drunk family friend at the wheel.
It was a desolate moment for the 91-year-old anti-apartheid icon, one in a series of tragedies in a life in which the pressures of the political took a toll on the personal.
Mandela, whose public appearances are increasingly rare, emerged stiffly from a car and leaned on a cane before being ferried in a golf cart to the brick chapel of the Johannesburg private school Zenani Mandela had attended.
Mandela sat in a front pew, his back straight and his face grave, though he broke into a smile at lighter moments during the service, including when a troupe of young singers and dancers did a number in Zenani’s honor. The service, which featured pop songs, hymns and a Maya Angelou poem, lasted about three hours.
Mandela wore a corsage of pink roses on the lapel of his black coat. Other mourners also brightened black clothes with ties, scarves and flowers in shades of pink, Zenani’s favorite color.
Police say a close family friend who was driving the car that crashed on a highway in the early hours of June 11 could be charged with drunk driving and homicide. Zenani was returning from the official World Cup kickoff concert.
Hours after Zenani died, Mandela’s office announced it would be inappropriate for him to attend the tournament’s opening ceremony and first game, as had been expected. Mandela is credited with sealing his country’s bid to become the first in Africa to host a World Cup.
Mandela largely retired from public life in 2004, but recent appearances have included a February visit to parliament in Cape Town, where he sat in the public gallery for a State of the Nation address scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his release after 27 years in prison.
Early Thursday, a private burial was held for his great-granddaughter. The public had been welcomed to the chapel service, and several hundred people attended, including an overflow crowd who filled a tent outside.
Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, accompanied him. Also present was his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who is Zenani’s great-grandmother; lawyer George Bizos, who had defended Mandela during the apartheid years, and Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela.
An anguished message was read during the service from Zenani’s mother, Zoleka Mandela-Seakamela, daughter of Mandela’s daughter Zindzi Mandela. Mandela-Seakamela said she wished she had indulged her daughter more, allowing her to sleep in late and wear make-up.
“I should have given you more hugs, more kisses,” Mandela-Seakamela said. “If I did all this, would you come back to me, if only for a few seconds?”
If there were tears, there was also laughter as a playful, precocious child who liked Hannah Montana and the World Cup anthem “Waka Waka” was remembered.
Supermodel Naomi Campbell delivered a message by video, saying she considered Zenani her goddaughter.
“I was truly blessed to have been able to say that we walked and laughed and got to play dress-up,” Campbell said. “She will remain in my heart forever.”
Zenani’s classmates in school blazers each held a single white rose, and stood with other mourners to sing “Amazing Grace” as the funeral began before a montage of family portraits, including one of Zenani hugging Mandela, was projected on screens as a recording of “Lean on Me” played.
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, had died in a car crash.
Prison authorities refused to allow Mandela to attend the funeral.
Thirty-six years later, Makgatho died. Mandela announced his last surviving son had died of AIDS-related complications, saying the only way to fight the disease’s stigma was to speak openly.
Two of Mandela’s marriages fell apart, the second to Winnie. He began his 27-year imprisonment only four years after marrying her.
Associated Press Writer Lesego Motshegwa contributed to this report.