JOHANNESBURG – When Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter was killed in a June 2010 car crash, her tragic death cast a shadow over the start of the FIFA World Cup, and kept the former president and Nobel Prize winner away from the opening events.
More than two years later, 13-year-old Zenani Mandela's family is still fighting for justice in a prolonged court case over the fatal accident. But her grandmother Zindzi — Nelson Mandela's daughter — is fronting a new United Nations campaign to highlight the problems of road safety.
"We lose 1,000 children a day in road deaths, and the highest killer of children above the age of 10, worldwide, is road accidents," said Zindzi, sitting in a shaded courtyard at the exclusive private school her granddaughter attended. A plaque on the wall outside what was the young girl's classroom commemorates the teen, who had celebrated her 13th birthday just days before her death.
"What the campaign's all about to say these are deaths that are preventable" she says, adding that road deaths in developing countries, and Africa in particular, should be afforded a greater priority by regional governments.
The UN campaign — with Zindzi Mandela's advocacy — urges education for road users and pedestrians alike. Zindzi also calls for investment to improve roads, pavements, signs and lighting across Africa where urban growth and road use has outstripped many nations' abilities to build appropriate infrastructure.
"If you go to rural areas, to townships, sometimes even around town, you see there's not enough infrastructural support where pedestrians can wait before the cross they road, where taxis can actually pull over before they drop off passengers," said Zindzi.
The UN Decade of Action for Road Safety is launching a distinctive yellow warning triangle lapel badge and branded wristbands to promote their campaign. It aims to get businesses involved at a community level, extending their social programs to include funding for road safety education and equipment, as well as HIV/AIDS awareness initiatives.
The Mandela family has suffered two road traffic deaths. One of Nelson Mandela's sons from his first marriage was killed in a car crash in the 1960s, but it is the more recent death of Zenani — and her close relationship with her famous great-grandfather — that spurred them to become involved in the UN campaign.
"I often share the story of how my father asked her when she was nine years old what she wants for her birthday, and she said 'I want you to come and read to the children in my class.' So he came here," said Zindzi as she looked at photographs of Zenani: in school uniform sporting a huge grin and braces; at a family party with flowers in her hair; kissing Nelson Mandela after a school play.
"It's been hard on all of us because she was like the life of every party, every family gathering, and to this day we still feel her absence. We feel it profoundly."
David Mac Dougall can be reached at www.twitter.com/davidmacAP.