afrol News, 10 June - At least 20 African leaders have confirmed their attendance for the first World Cup to be held on the continent, and they started arriving in South Africa today.
"At the present time, there are 20 African Heads of State who will definitely come. In addition, another 18 eminent persons have confirmed their attendance," according to a statement from the South African government.
Among some of the dignitaries who will attend the biggest soccer tournament ever will be Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, both missing the national budget speech at home. "It will be the first time in Kenya history that a sitting President has missed the presentation of the budget in Parliament," the Kenyan daily 'Nation' noted.
Less prominent but equally controversial is the President of Moroccan occupied Western Sahara, Mohamed Abdelaziz. Basing his exiled government in Algeria-based refugee camps, President Abdelaziz has granted a South Africa holiday to three other cabinet members. The Saharawi delegation arrived already on Wednesday, before any other official state guests.
Among the less popular guests is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, accompanied by his rival and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai at the opening match. But South Africa has made sure to avoid Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, as President Jacob Zuma threatened he would be arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) if setting foot in South Africa.
Other African leaders jetting in to observe the World Cup opening ceremony, where host South Africa will play Mexico, include Angola's President José Eduardo dos Santos, Mozambique's Armando Guebuza and President Dennis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville. These three leaders have legitimised their World Cup trip by two mini-summits together with host President Zuma.
But only a few of the African countries qualified for the World Cup - Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria - will be represented by their leaders. Ghana's John Evans Atta Mills is the only President from this group of countries having arrived South Africa, while Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan is on his way.
The South African government however is satisfied with the attendance. "We are really, really happy with the support that we have received from the African continent. Even during the time when some people were spreading rumours about South Africa's capacity to host the event, African countries stood on our side and were very clear in their defence of their understanding of the capacities that South Africa has," Foreign Ministry director general Ayanda Ntsaluba explained.
He added that government also appreciated the mobilisation of volunteers from the African continent for the tournament. "This shows that the African continent wants this to be a success," said Mr Ntsaluba, adding that his government wanted to ensure that the continent protected and projected the African character of the World Cup.
African leaders who are in the country will meet with President Jacob Zuma before the opening ceremony of the month-long tournament. They will also get an opportunity to meet US Vice President Jo Biden, FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, UN leader Ban ki-Moon and 91-year-old ex-President and freedom hero Nelson Mandela - all participating at Friday's opening ceremony.
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