Johannesburg — It is hard to imagine that any individual has been as much feted as Nelson Mandela, who turned 85 at home in Johannesburg on Friday. A singular honour for a singular gentleman; or "a tremendous guy" as his old friend, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, called Madiba (the Xhosa clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known).
South Africans rose to the occasion, with tributes pouring in from all over the country. Praise also came in birthday greetings and congratulations from across the globe for "Africas Number One Citizen" and the man who became the worldwide symbol for the struggle against apartheid.
A message from one of Mandelas grandchildren summed up the gratitude of a nation, liberated from the yoke of white supremacist rule. She said: "Happy Birthday Grandad, thank you for being everyones hero and thank you for setting us free."
Ironically, it was when Mandela was deprived of his freedom, for 27 years, that he discovered what the big day was all about. As he remembers it, "I have never celebrated a birthday until I was in jail. It was never part of our culture to celebrate a birthday."
His millions of admirers are making sure that birthdays have become very much part of the culture of Africas most revered statesman.
Bagpipes and cakes
Mandela might have preferred a quiet day on his birthday, at home with family and close friends, celebrating the 5th anniversary of his marriage to former Mozambican first lady, Graca Machel, whom he wed on his 80th birthday in 1998. But that was not to be.
Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Mandela on Friday and to wish him well. They lined up in chilly dawn temperatures outside his gate, to be joined later by other well-wishers, among them Mandelas successor as president, Thabo Mbeki. Others included senior government and African National Congress (ANC) officials, Springbok national rugby players and musicians - some with bagpipes.
As Mbeki's words put it, South Africans wanted the chance to pay tribute to "God's gift to the world" who was "a blessing to all South Africans." Another message described Madiba as "a beacon for humanity."
His neighbours in Johannesburgs wealthy Houghton suburb also popped over to say happy birthday to Madiba. A full band from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was joined by the Springboks for a spirited musical tribute. And there was a fly-past by a plane named after Nelson Mandela in the new fleet of the national airline, South African Airways. Birthday cakes galore were presented and some of them cut for the cameras.
The local and international media were out in force to record Mandelas every move, as he obliged the myriad admirers by coming out of the house accompanied by his wife to meet and greet.
"If I have to live for another 85 years, it will be because of all the good wishes I have received from all over the world, but equally importantly from my own organisation," said Mandela, ever faithful to the ANC, which came to power when he became South Africas first black president in 1994.
He stood down four years later, but has probably been busier in retirement than he was in government, pursuing a punishing schedule at the head of his charities, The Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, as an African peace broker and in the fight against HIV/Aids.
If there is one vocal criticism of Mandela, it is that he failed to make HIV/Aids a national priority during his presidency from 1994-1999. He acknowledges and accepts the criticism. South Africa is the country with the highest number of people in the world living with HIV/Aids.
Relentless campaign on Aids
Now Mandela is making up for that lapse, relentlessly campaigning and raising money for education and Aids. Most importantly, he has espoused Aids' activists determination to see the nationwide use of antiretroviral drugs at an affordable cost. Mandela's endorsement flies in the face of the Mbeki government's policy on ARVs. But, while careful not to step on Mbeki's toes on this divisive issue, he has remained steadfast and outspoken about HIV/Aids which Mandela says "is going to wipe out our nation if we don't take precautions".
In his tribute, Mbeki said of Mandela: "All of us as a country are indeed very blessed that we have somebody like him who has led the life that he has and helped to create the kind of South Africa that we now have."
With a twinkle in his eye and his wicked wit, sense of humour and humility in tact, Mandela responded later, "I have lost office, I have lost influence, I am now a has-been and thats the way I want to be treated!"
"Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela is Gods gift to our country, South Africa, our continent, Africa, and the world at large - he will remain an icon for all time whenever and wherever people have discourse about human yearnings for freedom and justice," wrote Mbeki in a statement.
Gone on Friday was the frail and mournful Mandela who, cane in hand, stood with difficulty to bid farewell to his liberation comrade and mentor, Walter Sisulu who died at 91 in May. Friday's Mandela looked radiant and appreciative of all the attention heaped on him on his birthday, as he passed another milestone in a long and eventful life.
Archbishop Tutu, 71, said Mandelas prison years had given him a "new depth, helped him to be more understanding of the foibles of others, to be more generous, more tolerant, more magnanimous and it gave him an unassailable credibility and integrity. So he could be as he was when he emerged from prison, willing to extend a hand of friendship to his former adversaries and be generous when they were vanquished."
Asked this week to identify any flaws in Mandelas character, Tutu found it hard and told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that his friends only fault was his "loyalty". "He showed it particularly when he was president and when you thought sometimes that, say, there were cabinet ministers who ought to have been given the trekpas (an Afrikaans expression for being shown the door or given the boot).
Tutu said Mandela always stood by family, friends, colleagues and comrades - even if some should have been sacked from their official posts. "He would refuse to do that because of his quite extraordinary degree of loyalty and I think that was a major weakness in someone who is practically flawless."
But Tutu was quick to add that he was particularly touched by Mandelas joy in his marriage to Graca Machel, which he said had given Madiba a new, lease on life. One day, noting the absence of his wife abroad, a delighted Mandela told Tutu she had called home: "He was speaking almost like a very young person, who had been bowled over by someone he likes. One is thrilled for him that his love life has blossomed so wonderfully," said Tutu.
Tutu concluded that Machel, who has retained her first married name, had played a pivotal role in ensuring that Mandelas latter years were happy and fulfilled, after his painful divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, with whom he has two daughters.
Talking about the couple's relationship and the affection between Mandela and Machel, Tutu said: "There is no question. You look at him. He obviously looks his age in terms of how he walks. But when you look at his face, I mean his face is glowing. Hes one of the best advertisements for love and marriage."
On a more formal note, United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, wrote: "To this day, Madiba remains probably the single most admired, most respected, international figure in the entire world. He continues to inspire millions of people and several generations throughout the globe, by continuing to fight for reconciliation before recrimination, healing before bitterness, peace before conflict; by fighting for health, for education, for the right of every child to have a better start in life."
Annan said Mandela symbolised and embodied what difference one person could make "in the face of injustice, conflict, human rights violations, mass poverty and disease."
Former United Statespresident Bill Clinton wrote: "President Mandela has taught us so much about so many things. Perhaps the greatest lesson, especially for young people, is that while bad things do happen to good people, we still have the freedom and responsibility to decide how to respond to injustice, cruelty and violence and how they will affect our spirits, hearts and minds."
Most South African newspapers featured giant-sized portraits of Mandela on their front pages and were effusive in their praise of the man who led a peaceful transition to a non-racial South Africa and black majority government, after almost three decades behind bars.
"Gods gift to the world," exulted the headline of The Citizen, quoting President Mbeki.
The mass circulation Sowetan featured a cartoon by Zapiro of Mandela, in his trademark African print shirt, doing his now legendary dance, the 'Madiba Shuffle', and the legend, "our greatest struggle hero and the worlds greatest living icon."
An editorial in The Sowetan read: "Once in a century, humanity is blessed with one soul who touched the lives of people across the globe in such a special way. In our time, Madiba, our former president, must surely be that man... His life has almost mirrored the journey of an entire people; a remarkable journey of hardship, struggle and now liberation. [His birthday] is at once a celebration of human goodness and a powerful reason for hope."
Striking a similar note, the weekly Mail and Guardian commented: "Through the ages, the human race has had its icons - men and women who rose above ordinariness to inspire their generations...In our generation, the gods bequeathed us Nelson Mandela, who for billions around the world has come to symbolize the virtues and values needed to reverse the barbarism that characterized human behaviour in the past century."
Business Day wrote: "His life is celebrated by the mighty and the low, from kings to the commonest of commoners, and by black and white. He deserves it all and much more."
Radio stations dedicated much of their airtime to open lines, inviting ordinary listeners to call in and honour Mandela in song or speech.
Mandelas three-day birthday party continues with celebrities jetting in from all over the world for a gala birthday banquet on Saturday night. Some 1,600 guests have been invited including, say reports, Mandelas chef and gardener. Also billed to attend the dinner are African leaders and royalty, Clinton and U.S. showbiz supremos, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.
The celebrated South African a cappella vocalists, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, will sing Madiba a soulful rendition of 'Happy Birthday'.
South Africa is hoping to break a world record by receiving millions of phone calls and birthday text messages for Mandela. The Internet tribute page is http://www.safrica.info.
South Africa's telecom provider, Telkom, has encouraged ordinary South Africans and people from around the world to post their tributes on the website. The company will contribute 10 cents for every minute of international calls received during the "Happy Birthday" campaign to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
South Africans are mindful, in the wake of Sisulus death, that their beloved Madiba remains the last in a generation of legendary liberation leaders, and they are determined to let him know that he has touched and transformed their lives.
"Tata [grand-dad] you are a father to the whole world. We thank the Lord for a gift like you," was one message. Another read: "Darling Madiba, my dearest wish is that I may hug you one day. Love from an extremely passionate South African." A third well-wisher wrote: "You have touched my life."
From the United States, a Nigerian writer said: "I believe that just like Malcolm, Nkrumah, Lumumba, LOuverture, youre always gonna be with us." A message from the Netherlands went: "To the greatest peace inspirator of our time." Another, from the US, said simply, "Happy Birthday, Papa of Africa."