Charismatic goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa was known for his athleticism and easy way with fans, teammates and coaches, and his slaying delivered yet another blow to the national sports scene.
The 27-year-old Meyiwa was killed about 8 p.m. Sunday after two gunmen entered the house of his girlfriend, Kelly Khumalo, a South African singer and celebrity, authorities said. He was shot in the upper body, and the gunmen, along with an accomplice who had waited outside the home in Vosloorus township near Johannesburg, fled on foot, according to police.
"Words cannot express the nation's shock at this loss," President Jacob Zuma said in a statement, leading the national grief for Meyiwa.
Zuma urged law enforcement authorities to "leave no stone unturned" in finding the killers, and police offered a reward of nearly $23,000 for information leading to their arrest and conviction.
South African sports officials had already expressed sadness at the saga of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic runner who fatally shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year. Following a tumultuous and emotional trial, Pistorius began serving a five-year prison sentence Oct. 21 after being convicted of culpable homicide, or manslaughter; prosecutors who had sought a murder conviction plan to appeal.
On Friday, former 800-meter world champion and Olympic silver medallist Mbulaeni Mulaudzi died in a car crash.
South Africa hosted the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010 with relatively little incident, dispelling visitors' fears amid a decade-long decline in violent crime. However, police said last month that there were 17,000 killings in the year ending in March, a 5 per cent increase over the previous year in a country of 53 million.
Crime affects people of all walks of life in South Africa, which suffers deep economic inequality and has struggled to meet expectations of better opportunities after the end of white racist rule in 1994.
On Oct. 19, Jackson Mthembu, a member of parliament and a former spokesman for the African National Congress, was shot during a robbery at an ATM in the country's east, the party said. He drove himself to a nearby hospital for treatment.
Last year, the home of Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop and Nobel peace laureate, was burgled while he and his wife slept. They were not harmed.
Meyiwa was shot at Khumalo's home while trying to stop armed intruders who demanded cellphones and money, said friend Tumelo Waka Madlala, who was inside.
"As they were running away, we tried to stop them and that is when they shot him at point blank range," Madlala told The Associated Press.
Meyiwa was shot as another person struggled with one of the assailants, and as the soccer captain moved toward the door, said police Maj. Gen. Norman Taioe, a top detective working on the case.
"We don't have anything that would suggest he was the direct target," Taioe said. "It was during the struggle that a shot went off."
Two more shots were fired outside the house, which has no gate, he said.
There were seven people in the house before the intruders entered, according to police. No one else was hurt. A cellphone was taken.
Gen. Riah Phiyega, the national police commissioner, said Meyiwa's killing was a blow to the "brand" and "image" of South Africa, adding it was important to show the world that authorities were moving aggressively to solve the case.
"They will be keen to know what we are doing as police," Phiyega said at a news conference.
Meyiwa's father told TV station eNCA that his son was providing financial help to his family, and he wept and had to be comforted by a journalist.
The goalkeeper was recently made captain of the South African national team, known by its nickname of Bafana Bafana, and led it in four African Cup of Nations qualifiers this year. He hadn't surrendered a goal in the four games, keeping the team on top of its group and on course to qualify for next year's continental championship.
He also played for the Soweto-based Orlando Pirates, one of South Africa's biggest clubs. Meyiwa put in a strong performance in his last game, a 4-1 win over Ajax Cape Town on Saturday that sent the Pirates to the semifinals of the Telkom Knockout cup competition.
In torrential rain, Meyiwa made save after save, diving into puddles and sliding through the mud.
His devastated teammates sobbed when they gathered for training on Monday morning, Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza said.
South Africa's Premier Soccer League postponed this weekend's derby game between the Pirates and another big club, Kaizer Chiefs, out of respect for Meyiwa.
"Senzo died when he was starting to realize his cherished dream of leading the national team to dizzy heights," said Ephraim Mashaba, coach of South Africa's national team.
Others remembered his pleasant nature.
"He had an infectious smile, made people around him happy, he was very enthusiastic and a very positive individual," said national teammate Dean Furman.
Imray reported from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Associated Press writer Thomas Phakane in Johannesburg contributed to this report.