Nelson Mandela turned 95 Thursday, a remarkable milestone for a man considered South Africa’s most exceptional citizen. Across the nation, South Africans celebrated the life of the anti-apartheid icon and followed his directive to volunteer for a charitable cause. Meanwhile, Mandela remains in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital - where he has been for 40 days.
Nelson Mandela is known for doing the impossible: for keeping strong during a punishing 27-year prison term, for overturning South Africa’s ironclad apartheid regime, for uniting his fractured nation as its first black president and for bringing his country back on to the world stage after years of isolation.
On Thursday, he proved, yet again, that he is no ordinary man.
Mandela celebrated his 95th birthday in a Pretoria hospital. He has been there since June 8, when he was admitted for a recurring lung infection. He slipped into critical condition nearly a month ago.
Presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, updated VOA on Mandela’s condition - referring to him by his clan name, Madiba.
“Madiba has made steady improvement in responding to the treatment, but he is still in a critical condition. And President Zuma did say at the EU summit that he delivered the birthday card and Madiba smiled, so he was responsive, and he’s responding to treatment,” he said.
Maharaj said the doctors have not said whether Mandela can go home.
Mandela’s daughter Zindzi told a British broadcaster on Wednesday that her father had made “remarkable progress” and was well enough to watch television.
If Mandela is indeed watching television, he would see droves of South Africans rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to help charitable causes in his honor.
Nelson Mandela's grandson Zondwa Mandela gives out food parcels as they celebrate Mandela Day with 67 minutes of public service to honour the 67 years Mandela served humanity by first fighting against white-minority rule and then consolidating racial harmony when he was president, at the SOS children's home in Mamelodi township outside Pretoria July 18, 2013.
Nelson Mandela's granddaughter Ndileka (R) serves soup as she celebrates Mandela Day with 67 minutes of public service to honour the 67 years Mandela served humanity by first fighting against white-minority rule and then consolidating racial harmony when he was president, at the SOS children's home in Mamelodi township outside Pretoria July 18, 2013.
Children hold placards as they gather to wish Nelson Mandela happy birthday at a township school in Atteridgeville, near Pretoria, July 18, 2013.
A portrait of Mandela is displayed on the windows of a building on his 95th birthday, Cape Town, South Africa, July 18, 2013.
A group of kindergarten children sing Happy Birthday outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where the former South African President is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa July 18, 2013.
A child sings as he and others celebrate Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday in Cape Town, July 18, 2013.
A banner of photos of Nelson Mandela set up outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in South Africa, July 18, 2013.
School children sing happy birthday to Mandela in front of his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, July 18, 2013.
A man prays as well-wishers gather to wish Mandela happy birthday outside Mediclinic Heart Hospital, July 18, 2013.
Members of the ruling party youth league sing outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where Nelson Mandela is being treated, July 17, 2013.
A man places a candle inside the St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, July 17, 2013.
A visitor takes a photo of a poster at the opening of an international exhibition of 95 posters celebrating the 95 years of the life of Nelson Mandela, at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, July 17, 2013.
July 18 was declared an international day of service in 2009. People are asked to give 67 minutes of their time doing something charitable - one minute for each year Mandela dedicated to his struggle for a better world.
University of Johannesburg community engagement coordinator Ernestine Meyer-Adams said she took the order seriously. On Thursday, the university deployed 4,400 student and staff volunteers across the city. Volunteers cleaned and repainted at government hospitals, distributed food parcels to indigent patients, planted trees, and cleaned up the neighborhoods around campus.
Meyer-Adams said helping others was an obligation.
“It’s making me feel very, very warm inside. Because you know we are uplifting our communities and the key thing is, we are following in Mandela’s legacy. And I really think it’s very important for South Africa, not just for us as the University of Johannesburg, but for us as South Africa, to work together, to stand together, and to help uplift, and to help repair our broken communities,” she said.
The Johannesburg School for the Blind, Low Vision and Children with Multiple Disabilities said they benefited greatly from such initiatives. On previous Mandela Days, volunteers have come to rebuild the modest school, which runs on charitable contributions and serves 24 students. Many have been badly burned in house fires.
School Principal Celyne Tebid said the charitable acts did’t just improve the school -- they also taught the students a valuable lesson.
“You can see that they are already beginning to learn that spirit of giving, of caring, of sharing, which is something we try to instill in them in their teaching," said the school principal. "Also most of them, if you want to ask them what their future plans are, one will say, ‘I want to be a nurse,’ another one will say, ‘I want to be a doctor,’ -- and if you probe further to ask why they choose to be what they want to be, they will say, ‘I want to be a doctor because I’ll be helping children who were burned and survived like me.’”
Every volunteer and beneficiary that VOA spoke to said they wanted to give their former president the same message on his birthday, "Happy birthday, Madiba, we love you."