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Frail Mandela attends great-grandchild's funeral

Zenani Mandela, 13, died in a car crash on her way home from a concert on the eve of the soccer World Cup opening.

June 17, 2010|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — At her funeral, her mother wished she'd given the girl more hugs and more kisses. Her grandfather said she was an "old soul" who understood the world better than most adults. Her father extolled her musical abilities. Her uncles said she was mischievous, charming and sometimes irritating.

And in the front pew at the funeral sat an old man who rarely ventures into public these days: Nelson Mandela, saying farewell to 13-year-old Zenani Mandela, one of his nine great-grandchildren.

It was a simple family tragedy, except that the family is South Africa's most famous.

Six years ago Nelson Mandela came out of retirement, flew to Zurich and lobbied for his country to host the World Cup. On the eve of the World Cup opening, Zenani attended the gala Kick Off concert, then was killed in a car accident on the way home.

The former president had been expected at the World Cup opening ceremony, but canceled after learning that morning of Zenani's death.

The driver of the car, a family friend, has been arrested. South African news reports say he may face charges of driving under the influence of alcohol when he appears in court after the close of the World Cup tournament.

Zenani's funeral was held at the chapel in her private school, St. Stithians, in a well-to-do suburb north of Johannesburg.

A frail Mandela, who turns 92 next month, emerged from the car looking somber and wearing a long, dark coat. He accompanied his wife, Graca Machel, up the aisle and sat in the front pew. On his lapel he wore a corsage of roses, in pink, Zenani's favorite color.

The former president's life has been haunted by tragedy. During his 27 years in prison for resisting South Africa's apartheid system, Mandela's eldest son, Madiba Thembekile, died. Mandela was not given permission to attend the funeral. His other son, Makgatho Lewanika, died of AIDS in 2005.

Mandela did not speak at the funeral. His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was also present. Their daughter, Zindzi Mandela, is Zenani's grandmother.

Zenani's schoolmates held white roses and sang "Amazing Grace." The Soweto Gospel Choir also performed for the mourners, who included many members of the country's ruling African National Congress.

Mourners wept as a slideshow of photographs of Zenani with her family was displayed on a big screen accompanied by the soul song "Lean on Me."

One friend, Maria Ambrosio, tears pouring down her cheeks, read a tribute: "To Zenani, my best friend. Your heart was like a temple, always full of gold to share. Thank you for all the smiles. And you will always be my friend and sister."

Her paternal grandfather, Oupa Seakamela, described her as dignified and stylish.

"I called her Princess Makombo because everything she did, she did with style … dignity," he said. "She carried herself like a princess."

A message from Zenani's mother, Zoleka Mandela-Seakamela, which was read aloud during the service, captured the family's anguish at losing a beloved, talented child.

She remembered the happy times when her daughter would walk around wearing too-big high heels. Or watching their favorite TV shows together, Hannah Montana and cookery programs.

"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?"

South Africa has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world. More than 14,000 people are killed annually.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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