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Nelson Mandela Turns 85 - 2003-07-18


Former South African President Nelson Mandela has turned 85 Friday. The feeling and sentiment among South Africans as they celebrate Nelson Mandela's birthday is reminiscent of the time of the country's first democratic election in 1994.

South Africa is not only in the grip of a national outpouring of love for their beloved hero, but seems for the moment to have forgotten the challenges, uncertainties, and even pain of a society in transition.

Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu says Nelson Mandela's birthday is indeed a special day, a day of what he called glowing warmth. Archbishop Tutu, or the Arch, as he likes to be called, told VOA Mr. Mandela fills South Africans with a real sense of worth.

"Nelson Mandela overcame some of the most ghastly conditions - imprisonment, injustice, oppression - things that you would have thought would have broken his spirit, and have not done so," said Archbishop Tutu. "He makes us think, actually, it's wonderful to be human, and I hope I can be like this good human being."

In the past week, radio and television shows, newspapers, Web sites and chat lines have been deluged with birthday wishes for Mr. Mandela. He has received gifts from a simple cake, to a flyover above his home by the new airbus South African Airways has named for him.

On Saturday, 1,600 guests, including former President Clinton, dozens of international superstars, such as Barbra Streisand, and several heads of state will mingle with both the elite and the humble of South African society at a glittering birthday banquet in Johannesburg.

Archbishop Tutu says Mr. Mandela has an uncanny ability to bring together and to touch people of all kinds.

"One of the wonderful things, you see, is how a 'terrorist' metamorphoses into a president and not just any old president, but a president who after a little while those people who would have wanted to see him dead were beginning to eat out of his hand," he said. "He has an incredible sixth sense about the kind of things that help you to connect with people."

Margaret Nkonyane is an office cleaner who told VOA that, even young children who have no idea about apartheid, or what Mr. Mandela did to end it, know who he is.

"We all love him - even South African young kids, they always get crazy when they hear someone is speaking about him," said Ms. Nkonyane. "To us, he is everything. I can think about my grandfather, I can think about my father, everything."

There was a private birthday celebration on Friday for Mr. Mandela. Among the guests was a friend of 50 years, Amina Cachalia. She shared with VOA the birthday message she sent to him.

"Over a timespan in excess of half a century, variously a light in dark times, a filter from the glare, an example for the world to share," she said. "Long may you live, enriching the lives you touch in the way you have gilded ours."

South African President Thabo Mbeki said that Mr. Mandela's gift is his ability to represent a variety of things, such as freedom and hope. He said Friday is a national day of celebration for South Africans; and, using Mr. Mandela's clan name, urged them to say in one voice: Happy birthday, Madiba.

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