PRETORIA, Gauteng (AFP) – Nelson Mandela spent his 95th birthday in the hospital Thursday but his health was “steadily improving”, South Africa’s president said, as people around the world honored his legacy with charitable acts.
Six fraught weeks after he was admitted to the hospital with a recurring lung infection, South Africans breathed a sigh of relief to learn that their national hero was getting better as they carried out good deeds to mark international Nelson Mandela Day.
“Madiba remains in the hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving,” the president said in a statement, using Mandela’s clan name.
Ndileka Mandela told AFP her grandfather was now more responsive. “He’s using his eyes, nodding,” she said.
The updates prompted joyful prayers of thanks outside Mandela’s hospital which, for 41 days, has been the focal point of a national vigil.
“Tata (father) Mandela has once again proved that he is a fighter,” said well-wisher Agnes Shilowane, a local university student.
Nearby, school children read poems and left cards as nurses sang happy birthday to the former political prisoner who went on to become South Africa’s first black president.
Later, a military brass band played a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
Birthday greetings and messages of support poured in from around the world — and even from astronauts on the International Space Station — to mark the anniversary, which many had feared Mandela would not live to see.
U.S. President Barack Obama — who was unable to visit Mandela during a trip to South Africa last month — led tributes to the peace icon, calling on people to honor him through volunteer work.
“Our family was deeply moved by our visit to Madiba’s former cell on Robben Island during our recent trip,” Obama said in a statement.
“We will forever draw strength and inspiration from his extraordinary example of moral courage, kindness, and humility.”
Other well-wishers included the Dalai Lama, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, U.S. actor Morgan Freeman and Mandela’s former jailer FW de Klerk, who went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize with him.
“Mandela’s place in South Africa’s history is assured,” former president De Klerk said in a statement.
“His legacy of courage, perseverance and magnanimity will continue to inspire us — and people throughout the world — for generations to come.”
Across South Africa, biker gangs cleaned streets, volunteers painted schools and politicians spent 67 minutes on worthy projects — all to mark Mandela’s 67 years of public service.
“Let us return Madiba’s sacrifices and contributions through our own efforts to build a better society,” President Jacob Zuma said.
Near Pretoria, Zuma tried to channel Mandela’s cross-community appeal by delivering government housing to poor whites.
— ‘Oxtail and dumplings’ —
The Mandela family also did their bit, with his grandchildren volunteering at a children’s home.
They were then expected to gather at the hospital for lunch, along with Mandela’s third wife Graca Machel, who also celebrates 15 years of marriage to her husband today.
“We’re doing our 67 minutes and bringing our old clothes that we’re not using anymore. Then we’ll converge at the hospital to have lunch with granddad,” said Mandela’s granddaughter Ndileka said.
She said the birthday meal would include Mandela’s favorite food, including “oxtail, prawns, dumplings and vegetables”.
The United Nations declared the Nobel Peace laureate’s birthday Mandela Day in 2010, but for many this year it takes on extra poignancy.
In central Lisbon the Don Pedro IV Square was to be renamed Nelson Mandela Square, and an open-air Mandela-themed opera concert was planned in Paris.
On Saturday, the Australian city of Melbourne will hold a concert featuring local and African artists, while a music festival later this year in Norway will promote equality in schools.
Born on July 18, 1918, Mandela fought against white rule in South Africa as a young lawyer and was convicted of treason in 1964.
He spent the next 27 years in jail.
It was in part through his willingness to forgive his white jailers that Mandela made his indelible mark on history.
After negotiating an end to apartheid, he became South Africa’s first black president, drawing a line under centuries of colonial and racist suppression.
He then led reconciliation in the deeply divided country.
“Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela,” said retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Nobel Peace laureate.
But the sunset of Mandela’s life has been somewhat eclipsed by bitter infighting among his relatives.
A row over his final resting place has seen three of his children’s graves dug up and their remains moved amid public brawling and legal action among his children and grandchildren.
Photo Credit: AFP/Alexander Joe