PRETORIA — South Africa and the world showered tributes on Nelson Mandela today as the anti-apartheid leader turned 95 in hospital and his doctors reported he was “steadily improving” from a six-week lung infection.
The country has been on edge since the former president and father of the multi-racial ‘Rainbow Nation’ established at the end of apartheid in 1994 was admitted to hospital on June 8 with recurring lung problems that kept him in a critical condition.
It was his fourth stay in hospital in six months and has reminded South Africans that the man who is globally admired as a moral beacon against injustice and a symbol of racial reconciliation will not be with them forever.
But the mood was of celebration today as thousands of South Africans sang Happy Birthday and took part in charitable initiatives in a global outpouring of support for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on UN-designated “Nelson Mandela Day”.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Mandela as “a giant of our times” and called on people around the world to pay tribute to him through community service.
South Africans young and old commemorated the birthday with 67 minutes of public service to honour the 67 years Mandela served humanity by first fighting against white-minority rule and then consolidating racial harmony when he was president.
Many offered birthday wishes outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela has been receiving treatment, singing songs and holding up signs wishing him a speedy recovery.
“Thank you for all that you have done for this country,” said one well-wisher, Margaret Chechie.
President Jacob Zuma visited Mandela at the hospital and said he was making steady progress.
“I was able to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to him and he was able to smile,” he told reporters.
Hours earlier, his office had cited Mandela’s doctors saying “his health is steadily improving.”
Mandela’s victory in the first multiracial elections in 1994 put an end to the apartheid system. Four years earlier, he was released from 27 years spent in prison under white minority rule, 18 of them at the notorious Robben Island penal colony.
His former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela called the 95th birthday “a gift to the nation”. (Reuters)