Michelle Theriault, AP, July 18, 2009
Nelson Mandela’s fans celebrated the anti-apartheid icon’s 91st birthday Saturday by emulating him with good deeds, reading to the blind, distributing blankets to the homeless or refurbishing homes for AIDS orphans.
Mandela had called on people to spend time doing good Saturday, the first Mandela Day, which his charity foundations hope will be an annual event.
South Africans collected clothing for poor children, painted schools, planted trees near Mandela’s boyhood home in eastern South Africa, and renovated a building in downtown Johannesburg for people left homeless by a fire.
Mandela stepped down after serving one term as president–the first black South African to hold the post. Since 1999, he has devoted himself to such causes as fighting AIDS and poverty and championing the rights of children.
At a Mandela Day concert in New York on Saturday, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin and others are to perform for the benefit of Mandela’s AIDS foundation.
Mandela Day organizers encouraged people around the world to devote at least a minute for each of the 67 years Mandela campaigned against apartheid to community service.
In Soweto, Thembekile “Prisca” Tshabalala invited community members to play with disabled children at her year-old Nkanyezi Stimulation park, a cheery playground with seesaws and swings designed to accommodate children in wheelchairs.
The regular volunteers at a Johannesburg animal shelter called CLAW sang “Happy Birthday” for Mandela before getting to work Saturday. Children from poor communities volunteer to care for and walk the dogs at CLAW’s shelter, and adults donate time to help the children with their school work.
Many of the projects celebrating Mandela Day in South Africa underlined how much work remains to be done in a country proud of ending apartheid peacefully, but plagued by poverty, stubborn inequalities, and AIDS–some 5.2 million South Africans were living with HIV last year–more than in any other country in the world.
President Jacob Zuma, the current leader of Mandela’s African National Congress party, paid a birthday visit to Mandela at his home in Johannesburg.
Zuma was joined by party leaders and Mandela’s family, including wife Graca Machel and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as well as former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and former Tanzanian President Hassan Mwinyi, according to a statement from the ANC.
Zuma said Mandela taught the nation “reconciliation and forgiveness and we learned from him that you achieve personal freedom and inner peace if you release hatred and bitterness from your heart.”
Helen Zille, leader of the ANC’s main opponent, the Democratic Alliance, served at a soup kitchen in Cape Town.
In recent years, an increasingly frail Mandela has largely retired from public life and stressed that if his legacy is to live, others must take up his causes. His Mandela Foundation, which houses some of his archives and supports community building projects, has switched from a logo featuring his face to one featuring his hands, reflecting his desire to shift the focus from himself to the work ahead.