Nelson Mandela turned 92 on Sunday as US President Barack Obama and other world leaders hailed the anti-apartheid icon’s contribution to global politics and the fight for human rights.
“We are grateful to continue to be blessed with his extraordinary vision, leadership, and spirit,” Obama said in Washington as an increasingly frail Mandela celebrated quietly with his extended family at his home in Johannesburg.
“We strive to build upon his example of tolerance, compassion and reconciliation,” said the US president.
Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda was among the few invited guests who joined a private family gathering, Mandela’s office said, adding that his grandchildren presented him with a three-tier cake and sang “happy birthday dear granddad”.
“He is very well … he is healthy and taking into account the kind of life he had, it is really heartening… he is getting old, he is getting frail but he is absolutely healthy, full of life, spirits high,” Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, told the BBC.
“We will gather at home, we will sit around, give him a lot of love,” said Machel.
The occasion marked the first annual Nelson Mandela International Day.
Ordinary people in South Africa and abroad have committed to devoting 67 minutes of their time to community service, to mark the number of years Mandela spent in politics, an initiative backed by global figures such as former US president Jimmy Carter and UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari.
“I encourage us all to heed the call to engage in some form of service to others, in honour of the 67 years of sacrifice and service Madiba gave to us,” said Obama, referring to South Africa’s first black president by his nickname.
A group of 30 bikers, including Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, have taken a road-trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, engaging in community service along the way, to mark the birthday.
The group built a security fence at a centre for people living withAIDS in the impoverished Khayelitsha township, outside Cape Town.
“I take it as my connection to Madiba. We should do it everyday,” said Freeman, who played Mandela in the movie, Invictus.
The UN celebrated with various activities at its centres around the world from African countries such as Zambia and Sudan to Kazakhstan in central Asia.
Communities in Sudan were to participate in a Football for Peace tournament in El-Fasher, with the winning team awarded the Nelson Mandela Cup.
In Spain a 6.7km charity walk in Retiro Park, Madrid, was being held late on Sunday to mark the day.
“Nelson Mandela is a towering figure. He embodies the highest values of humanity, and of the United Nations,” said UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.
“Nelson Mandela’s accomplishments came at great personal cost to himself and his family. Today, on the first Nelson Mandela International Day, we thank him for everything he has done for freedom, for justice and for democracy,” said Ban.
Neighbours who gathered outside the high perimeter walls of Mandela’s Johannesburg home, some clutching signs declaring Happy Birthday Madiba, went away disappointed after police relayed the family’s request for privacy.
However, thousands of people turned out to celebrate at Mandela’s birthplace in Mvezo, hundreds of kilometres away in the Eastern Cape, where in a speech President Jacob Zuma described Mandela as a symbol of unity and tolerance.
“Of all the things that Madiba cherishes up to this day, it is the love of all humanity, freedom, justice and compassion for all people,” said Zuma.
Jailed for 27 years by the country’s white minority government for resisting apartheid rule, Mandela was released in 1990 and led negotiations with the government that culminated in his election as the country’s first black president in 1994.
He stepped down as president in 1999, after serving one term in office. He has made few public appearances since he retired from public life in 2004.