South African fans split whether Nelson Mandela should attend opening ceremony of World Cup

By Mia Snyman, AP
Monday, June 7, 2010

SAfricans split on Mandela’s attendance at opening

JOHANNESBURG — South African soccer fans are split whether Nelson Mandela should attend the opening ceremony of the World Cup.

Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under the former government’s oppressive apartheid system to eventually become president, is expected to make an appearance at Soccer City on Friday ahead of the opening match between Mexico and South Africa.

“It is important for our country (that he attend) as he is the one that united our nation, especially through his attendance of the 1995 Rugby World Cup,” said Lardus Bosman, a 21-year-old university student in Pretoria. “And as he might be reaching the end of his life, it is important that he should attend this historical South African event.”

Mandela took over as president in 1994, four years after being released from jail, and will be remembered for his role in changing the fate of many South Africans by fostering democracy in the country.

His attendance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, when South Africa surprisingly beat New Zealand following years of exile from international sport, was seen by many as the moment when South Africans were truly united — partly because “Madiba” congratulated former captain Francois Pienaar while wearing a green Springboks shirt.

But some people are more concerned about the 91-year-old Mandela’s health, and believe he should not travel to Soccer City if he is too frail.

“The Bafana team should rather visit him at his house before the opening match so that he can wish them good luck,” said An-Li Pretorius, a 23-year-old professional cyclist.

Rebecka Lesedi, a 49-year-old domestic worker, agreed that Mandela should stay indoors and watch the ceremony at home.

“He’s too old,” Lesedi said.

Hanco Kaggelhoffer, another professional cyclist, suggested that Mandela should appear at the ceremony via satellite. And Mmathapelo Zondo, an 18-year-old university student, agreed that a video message would be OK if the former president can’t make it on his own.

“If his health is not good, he should not be pushed to attend the ceremony, and a live message from him to the South African team should rather be broadcasted,” Zondo said.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said Sunday he did not know if Mandela would be at the ceremony, but if not, “his spirit will be present.”

Mandela has a reputation for inspiring teams to victory with his presence, known as the “Madiba magic.” A year after the Rugby World Cup, he wore a Bafana Bafana shirt before their triumph in the 1996 African Cup of Nations — still South Africa’s only major soccer title.

But Mandela, who stepped down as South Africa’s first black president in 1999, has rarely appeared in public since 2004. He did, however, make a surprise appearance last year at an ANC rally before the national election, and was photographed with the World Cup trophy last month.

The World Cup is being in held in Africa for the first time, and Mandela was a key factor in South Africa’s winning bid. But Johannes Segeri, a 25-year-old waiter, said the raucous African atmosphere that is sure to mark the festive occasion could cause problems for Mandela.

“The loud vuvuzelas and the excitement of the crowd will be too much for him to handle,” Segeri said.

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