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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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