They adore him like a favorite uncle, idolize him like a rock star and revere him like a religious icon.
South Africans of all races and ages feted Nelson Mandela as he -- and the entire nation -- celebrated his 85th birthday Friday.
Newspapers printed commemorative editions. Businesses sponsored billboards and television commercials saluting the former president. South African Airways named a new jet in his honor, and television stations streamed birthday greetings from his people across the bottoms of their screens.
"I personally think he is a saint," said Jill Dos Reis, 37, after Mandela warmly greeted her 10-year-old daughter, Nikita, who has leukemia.
While Mandela is respected and admired across the world, to South Africans he is a superstar of near-mythic proportions, a hero who astounded the world by preaching racial reconciliation to the people of this apartheid-scarred nation, despite the 27 years he spent imprisoned by the white, racist regime.
Mandela, who won the nation's first all-race elections after the fall of apartheid in 1994, retired in 1999. But he remains as popular as ever.
"He's loved by all and sundry, whether you're white or black, whether you're young or old," said Ali Bacher, South Africa's former cricket chief.
His popularity has spawned an entire kitsch industry. There are Mandela refrigerator magnets, drink coasters with a Warholian portrait of him in a rainbow of electric hues, even postcards that substitute him and his wife, Graca Machel, for the stoic farmer with pitchfork standing beside his daughter in the painting "American Gothic."
His face has appeared on a South African coin, a metropolitan area was named in his honor and some business leaders hope to build a massive, rotating statue in his likeness -- the Statue of Freedom -- taller than New York's Statue of Liberty.
Mandela's birthday is being marked by a whirlwind of celebrations.
Former US president Bill Clinton was scheduled to deliver the first annual Nelson Mandela lecture yesterday in his honor.
Later that evening, an expected 1,600 guests will pay tribute to Mandela at a gala banquet. The guest list has been kept secret, but local media say it includes Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, as well as several world leaders and royal family members.
The Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg will officially be opened today with a road race.
The celebration of his actual birthday Friday was more low-key.
A white tent was set up in the closed road outside his house for Mandela to greet visitors throughout the day. Instead of 85 candles on a birthday cake, a four-tiered tower of 85 birthday cakes was set up inside.
At 8am, a South African military marching band played "Happy Birthday" for the former resistance leader and then broke into a specially written tune for the occasion called the "March for Madiba," referring to the clan name South Africans call Mandela with affection.
"I feel very happy indeed," the Nobel Peace laureate said when he next popped out his house to meet with a group of disabled children.
"So nice to see you," he said as he circulated among the children, greeting each in turn.
"I want you to be encouraged to know that in spite of your disabilities, you are human beings and you have hopes and wishes like all of us," he told them. "You're accepted as ordinary human beings, like myself."