Nelson Mandela, the icon of the anti-apartheid movement and South Africa’s first black president, celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday as tributes poured in from around the world.
While Mandela employed his usual self-deprecating sense of humor, referring to himself as a retired old man, South Africans hailed him as the father of the nation and an unstoppable force for good even though he has long retired.
As newspapers printed special “Madiba” supplements, preparations were under way for celebratory events around the country, including a boxing tournament in honor of the one-time amateur pugilist.
Mandela is scheduled to host a major bash with 500 guests today at his rural homestead in the Eastern Cape but spent yesterday with his family and wife Graca as the couple also celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.
“We are honored that you wish to celebrate the birthday of a retired old man who no longer has power or influence,” Mandela said in a pre-recorded birthday message.
“We wish you well wherever you are. We are all celebrating and we thank you for joining me in those celebrations,” he said.
Mandela, who served as president from 1994 through 1999 after spending nearly three decades behind bars, has proved a tough act to follow and his birthday has been used by many commentators as an opportunity to draw an unflattering comparison with his successor Thabo Mbeki.
“The sweet celebration of a life of leadership, service and generosity is mixed with the sour taste of a legacy being polluted in front of the old man’s tired eyes,” the Mail & Guardian said in an editorial.
Mbeki, who is scheduled to attend the party today in Qunu, paid generous tribute to Mandela as “the embodiment of what human beings should be in themselves and to others.”
F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid era South Africa, described Mandela as one of the greatest figures of the 20th century.
“After his inauguration, Nelson Mandela used his personal charm to promote reconciliation and to mold our widely diverse communities into an emerging multicultural nation. This, I believe, will be seen as his greatest legacy,” de Klerk said.
In Qunu, villagers said they were honored by Mandela’s presence even if they have not been invited to today’s party.
“I have heard that we are not invited but I am going to put on my best suit and stand at the gate just to catch a glimpse of him,” 60-year-old Thandile Geledwa said.
“This is a big day for our village, especially for Madiba. It is always nice to hear our place being mentioned in same breath as his name. This makes his birthday our birthday too,” an elated Asive Joyini said.
Photographers and journalists were camped outside the home where a gigantic white marquee has been pitched in anticipation of the event.
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