Mandela celebrates 90th birthday at home

Saturday, July 19, 2008

QUNU, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela sat beaming in a yellow armchair, his legs propped up on a large stool and covered with a pale yellow blanket. Ten grandchildren crowded around to serenade him with "Happy Birthday" and then smothered him with hugs and kisses.

The anti-apartheid icon celebrated his 90th birthday Friday with his family at his home in rural southeastern South Africa, and the whole village turned out.

Elders in traditional dress came to pay their respects, sheep were trucked into the property and a troupe of bare-breasted young women sang and danced in preparation for Mandela's lunch with 500 dignitaries Saturday.

He still found time to settle down to read a pile of newspapers to keep up with local and international affairs.

Sounding and looking vigorous, Mandela told a small group of reporters he was fortunate to have reached 90, crediting his "behavior" for his longevity.

But the man who has become a symbol of peace remains troubled by the demoralizing poverty still faced by so many of his countrymen.

"If you are poor, you are not likely to live long," he said.

His message was simple -- the wealthy must do more.

"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 during the 10-minute interview, his first such exchange with journalists in years.

He was asked if he wished he could have had more time with his family during a life spent fighting apartheid and then leading South Africa as its first black president.

"I am sure for many people that is their wish," Mandela said. "I also have that wish that I spent more time [with my family]. But I don't regret it."

His third wife, Graca Machel, whom he married 10 years ago on his birthday, said in a TV interview that he was a lonely man despite his busy schedule as a leader when she met him a few years after he divorced Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1996.

She told Al-Jazeera television she helped him reconnect with his family.

"If I could say in a very modest way, that's what I was able to give him back," Machel, a noted campaigner for children's rights, said in the interview broadcast Friday. "I'm happy that in his sunset years I was able to be there for him. And he is there for me."

Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. He was released in 1990 to lead negotiations that ended decades of racist white rule, then was elected president in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

He completed his term in 1999 and did not run again, but has continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa.

Tukwini Mandela, 33, one of Mandela's granddaughters, said Friday was "a special day because we are planning a huge party on Saturday, and we are hoping he is going to enjoy it."

"We have invited his oldest friends who have meant something to him and have made a difference in his life," she said.

While not all Mandela's 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren were attending the celebrations, many were present Friday, creating a warm atmosphere in the house, decorated with animal skin mats and African prints on the walls.

Wearing one of his signature patterned shirts in shades of green, gold and black, Mandela glanced pensively out a window at the start of his interview with The Associated Press and a few other news organizations.

"This is my property. When I am here, I feel I own something," he said of the homestead in the rural area 600 miles south of Johannesburg where as a boy he herded cattle in the hills.

His grandchildren spoke of their pride in Mandela, the responsibility of bearing his name and the desire to protect the old man who could not be there when they were growing up.

"We are extremely proud of his achievements and the sacrifices he made," said Nandi Mandela, 40. "His humanity and his love for the people, especially children have made him into this world icon. We love him dearly."

She said birthdays have always been special occasions for her grandfather. She recalled how, without fail, she would receive a greeting card from him in prison -- even though he was only allowed to write a limited number of letters every month.

Mandela's birthday is annual cause for celebration across South Africa and draws attention from his many local and international admirers.

Two runners holding South African flags circled Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail. In Johannesburg, children celebrated with birthday cake at the offices of the foundation Mandela founded after stepping down as president in 1999, and his African National Congress party unfurled giant banners featuring his image at its downtown headquarters.

Birthday messages have been pouring in, including one Friday from President Bush, who applauded Mandela as "a great example of courage, hope, and the power of freedom."

Mandela at first planned a quiet affair at his home in the picturesque Xhosa homeland, with its rolling hills and turquoise huts. But there are now a variety of events planned in his honor in and around Qunu, including a soccer festival and a pop concert. The lunch Saturday will be attended by President Thabo Mbeki and veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle.

An exhibition of letters that children wrote to Mandela and the late U.S. civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks will be displayed at the Nelson Mandela Museum, a short distance from his house.

"He is like a typical birthday boy," said Ndileka Mandela, 43, adding that he frequently checked to see who was on the guest list. "He really wants to have the birthday here."

Bantu Holomisa, a former leader of the Xhosa homeland and close family friend, has been helping oversee preparations for Saturday's event.

The oxen were slaughtered according to traditional rituals and local women worked on a meal to be shared by local villagers, he said.

"For him (Mandela) the community is more important than the guests who he knows are going to be well looked after," Holomisa said.

It was clear Mandela is very important to the community. Schoolgirls shouted birthday greetings from taxi windows as they drove past the house, little children dressed in rags sang outside the gate and people came and went throughout the day.

"Today is an important day for the family of Mandela," said Nokwanele Balizulu, chief of Qunu. "Mandela is our father, our grandfather who released from the apartheid government and who was prepared to die for us."

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