As a military band played Scott Joplin's theme from The Sting, the rotund Mr Kabila climbed on to the escalator at a Durban conference centre to join more than 50 heads of state at a non-aligned movement summit. His appearance brought gasps from delegates.
Mr Kabila's arrival means all the main players in the war have now been forced or lured to the seaside town for a "summit within a summit", chaired by the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
There were hopes that Mr Kabila might come under pressure from his military allies, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, to strike a ceasefire deal, and stop a war that threatens permanently to partition Congo and engulf the entire region. His opening speech, however, was uncompromising. He simply maintained his position that Ugandan and Rwandan troops should remove themselves from the country.
Mr Annan will begin talks with the main players this morning. On one side is the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, and the Rwandan President, Pasteur Bizimungu; on the other, Mr Kabila, the Angolan President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the Namibian President, Sam Nujoma, and the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe.
Mr Kabila's allies have all sent troops to prop up his regime, creating bitter division in the 14-member Southern African Development Community. Mr Mandela, SADC chairman, is also expected to take part in talks, in which the sponsorship of the UN, not SADC, may save face for Mr Kabila.
Just over a week ago Mr Kabila's allies, led by Mr Mugabe, snubbed a SADC peace summit. Yesterday, Mr Mandela was set to meet Mr Mugabe for bi-lateral talks in their first encounter since Mr Mugabe angrily advised Mr Mandela to shut up if he was not prepared to send in troops to Congo.
Mr Mandela's drive for a diplomatic solution only highlighted the gulf between the new democratic leadership in Africa - in which the West places so much hope - and autocratic, old-style African leadership.
Earlier this week such was the animosity between delegations that it was impossible to imagine the enemy camps ever sitting round the same table. But with the rebels in retreat from western Congo - and Angola's and Zimbabwe's own security and political ends largely met - Mr Kabila may well be under pressure now to cut a deal.
But Mr Annan still has his work cut out. For the crisis is part of a bigger hornets' nest.
Central is Rwanda's obsession with national security, following the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis by militiamen from the majority Hutu population. The Hutu mass murderers found sanctuary in eastern Congo under former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr Kabila failed miserably to rout them out.
Rwandan insecurity has now sparked two rebellions in the Congo. This week Rwanda was lobbying the non-aligned summit to recognise the widespread persecution of Tutsis, particularly in Congo.
And some analysts say Mr Kabila is no longer in charge of Congo. In the east, Uganda and Rwanda have occupied corridors creating a buffer zone and de facto partition.
The possibility of the huge, unstable Congo becoming a buffet table at which its nine neighbours might pick has been on the cards since the end of Mr Mobutu's corrupt 32-year rule.
Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, believes Mr Kabila's days are numbered. And then Congo faces the same old problem. Who can govern and hold together a long-suffering, bankrupt country, with no democratic institutions, in which the West's interest has always been shaped by greed for its mineral wealth?Reuse content