Thousands of South Africans donated time to charity work today in a poignant commemoration of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday as he lies critically ill in a Pretoria hospital.
President Jacob Zuma handed over state-built houses to poor families and the government asked students to stop lessons and sing for the former president. The United Nations is marking his birthday with a special session. Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years for opposing white minority rule before leading the country to democracy in 1994, was hospitalized with a recurring lung infection on June 8.
“He made it his duty to reconcile all the people of South Africa,” Ahmed Kathrada, who is one of Mandela’s closest friends, said in an interview in Cape Town on July 15. “It was very hard to see this strong man physically reduced to a shadow of himself,” Kathrada, 83, said of his visit to Mandela in the hospital. “We hope and pray that he’s allowed to go home.”
Mandela is responding positively to treatment “and we are encouraged by the progress he is making,” Zuma, who visited the former president earlier today, said in a speech in Pretoria.
Mandela, who was jailed from 1964 to 1990, served a single five-year term as president after his African National Congress swept to victory in the first multi-racial elections. He earned global praise for urging reconciliation, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
In November 2009, the United Nations declared his birthday Nelson Mandela International Day in recognition of his service to humanity. Andrew Mlangeni, who was imprisoned with Mandela, will deliver a speech at the UN session this year, while Ban Ki-moon, the organization’s secretary-general, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton are also due to speak.
“At this difficult time, our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Mandela, his family and with all the people of South Africa,” Ban said in an e-mailed statement today. “We are united in admiration for a giant of our times.”
U.S President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin were among world leaders to congratulate Mandela.
“We will forever draw strength and inspiration from his extraordinary example of moral courage, kindness, and humility,” Obama said in a statement on the White House’s website. “Through our own lives, by heeding his example, we can honor the man who showed his own people, and the world, the path to justice, equality, and freedom.”
Mandela’s foundation, which promotes the annual charity campaign, urged people to spend 67 minutes helping others, to honor the 67 years he spent in public service. The government, opposition parties, businesses, sports clubs, radio stations and churches participated in initiatives such as fixing run-down schools and distributing food and clothing to underprivileged communities.
Streams of well-wishers bearing cards and flowers have flocked to the hospital where Mandela is being treated and to his homes in Johannesburg and Qunu in Eastern Cape province, while countrywide prayer services have been held for him.
South Africans find it very difficult to envision a future without Mandela, said Sello Hatang, chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.
“Letting go is a huge challenge,” Hatang said in a July 10 phone interview from Johannesburg. “He gave hope where there was none. How do you imagine yourself without what has been the symbol of hope, which has become an integral part of your identity?”
Mandela retired from public life in 2004 and was last seen publicly at the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg three years ago. The current stay is the longest of four in the hospital since December.
On June 26, Zuma canceled a planned trip to Mozambique after doctors said Mandela’s condition had deteriorated. The former leader was also deemed too ill to receive a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama, who was in South Africa on June 27 and 28.
Comments by Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, on Johannesburg’s SAfm Radio on July 12 that she was “less anxious” about his health than a week earlier, have raised hope that he may recover. This week, Johannesburg-based Eyewitness News cited Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president in 1999, as saying he may be sent home to recuperate.
Mandela’s illness has united the nation, just as his presidency did, according to Kathrada, who served jail time with Mandela following their conviction for sabotage in the so-called Rivonia trial 50 years ago.
“I think people will accept it” when Mandela eventually passes on, Kathrada said. “People will mourn his loss, but they will reconcile themselves with time.”