South Africa celebrates Mandela birthday

Published on Thursday 17th July 2008

Johannesburg: South Africa celebrated the 90th birthday on Friday of Nelson Mandela, a symbol of reconciliation in a nation now torn by doubts and nostalgia for his leadership.

Newspapers published special supplements and filled their pages with tributes that poured in for a man seen as the father of modern South Africa. Radio stations played tributes throughout the day.

"He gave us freedom. If it wasn't for him we would have not been where we are. Because of you, now I can walk freely. I can go to any school that I want and find a job of my own," student Barbara Phofo, 20, told Reuters in Johannesburg.

In a symbol of how deeply he is respected across the races, Beeld newspaper, published in the Afrikaans language of the whites whose rule he devoted his life to overthrowing, ran 12 pages of tributes and stories about the former president.

After six months of international celebrations, the frail Mandela spent his birthday quietly with family and friends at his childhood home at Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

He called for the rich in Africa's biggest economy to share their wealth with the legions of poor who still struggle 14 years after the end of white rule.

"There are many people in South Africa who are rich and who can share those riches with those not so fortunate who have not been able to conquer poverty," Mandela said, wearing one of his trademark patterned shirts.

"Poverty has gripped our people. If you are poor, you are not likely to live long," he said, sitting with his third wife, Graca, widow of former Mozambican president Samora Machel, whom he married on his birthday 10 years ago.

A group of grandchildren crowded round his chair to wish him happy birthday and kiss him. Mandela said he wished he could have spent more time with his family in a life of fighting apartheid, including 27 years in jail. "But I don't regret it," he said.

After the euphoria when Mandela became president in 1994 and used his inspirational example to unite the nation and avert a potential civil war, many feel the promise he symbolised has been dashed.

Love and respect for Mandela have if anything increased in the decade since he left office in 1999 after one term.

Many tributes expressed nostalgia for his rule and hopes that he would remain a guiding spirit for much longer.

"My wish is that you will enjoy many more years of good health and that we will continue to benefit from your wisdom and example," said Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow ANC prisoner with Mandela in the Robben Island jail.

"My wish would be that you could live forever, that future leaders could be just like you," Delaine Kirsten said on a Johannesburg street.

Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, has been widely criticised for failing to address the huge gulf between rich and poor which is stoking labour unrest, a power crisis which threatens to damage economic growth, one of the world's worst crime rates and the fallout from the collapse of neighbouring Zimbabwe.

In a tribute to Mandela, Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi wrote: "We're approaching a future without his commanding presence with some trepidation ... We won't see the likes of him again."

Desmond Tutu, another campaigner against apartheid and a fellow Nobel peace laureate said: "How blessed we have been. He has become the most admired statesman in the world, an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation, a moral colossus."

And Francois Pienaar, white captain when the Springbok national rugby team won the world cup in 1995, wrote: "Thank you for the inspiration you gave a nation."

Mandela appeared on the pitch at the end of the final wearing a Springbok rugby shirt and cap, in a powerful gesture of reconciliation with white South Africans.