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For South Africans, a Bittersweet Birthday Celebration for Nelson Mandela

  • Anita Powell

South African President Jacob Zuma, second left, in background with a bust of former South African President Nelson Mandela, center, outside Parliament before giving the State of the Nation address in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, June 17, 2014.

South African President Jacob Zuma, second left, in background with a bust of former South African President Nelson Mandela, center, outside Parliament before giving the State of the Nation address in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, June 17, 2014.

For many South Africans, this year's celebration of Nelson Mandela's birthday (July 18) is bittersweet, as the statesman died last year at the age of 95. But some say that his influence still looms large in South Africa, and they will honor him Friday on his birthday.

Friday will be the first Mandela Day to happen without its namesake. The former South African president died in December after years of declining health.

Mandela went to prison for 27 years for his opposition to the racist apartheid regime. He emerged in 1990 and was elected South Africa’s first black president in the nation’s first democratic, all-race elections. Many South Africans call him “Tata,” or father, as he is widely considered the father of today’s inclusive Rainbow Nation.

In Johannesburg, many say they plan to celebrate his life and honor his memory by volunteering. Many South Africans say they support a growing initiative to do charitable work for 67 minutes -- as the Nelson Mandela Foundation says, that’s one minute for every year Mandela gave to his struggle for equality.

South African President Jacob Zuma also has announced a nationwide effort, called Operation Clean Up for Madiba -- Madiba is Mandela’s clan name, and is often used as a sign of respect and love.

In Johannesburg, college student Mbalenhle Mankayi summed up many South Africans’ mixed feelings about this year’s celebration.

“I’m very excited although I do wish that he was still alive, you know, considering all that he’s done for this country, and they way he’s just changed the way we do things and everything," she said. "This Mandela Day I am going to be working at a charity for some children who are busy -- well, they kind of suffer in life, and I just feel that it’s within my right, considering all that I have and how blessed I am, to go to play my part in those children’s lives, yes.”

Samson Sivhada, who is a professional butler, said he has no definite plans for Mandela Day, but that he will find a way to remember Mandela and serve in his honor.

“Mandela, I would say, is an icon to so many people in the whole world and we have to be proud, as South Africans, to have a man of his caliber," he said. "Though he is late [dead] now, but they say we have to lead with [by] example, it’s the greatest example in a human being’s life, definitely.”

Businesses are also honoring the day, many with large corporate donations, free events and charitable initiatives.

On a smaller scale, entrepreneur Henry Cock, who runs a trendy restaurant and bar in Johannesburg, said his bar will earmark a portion of every drink sale on the day for Mandela’s children’s charity.

“It’s just about giving something back," he said. "Sometimes people don’t have time to literally go out and do something for 67 minutes, but I feel like every small donation to that children’s home helps, so hopefully we can make a couple of thousand rand and donate it to the children’s home and that will help a child out for a month or two or whatever.”

While the great statesman is no longer here, his spirit shines brightly over his beloved Rainbow Nation, and will be honored on Mandela Day.

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