JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela turned 94 Wednesday and all over South Africa, it is a day of celebration and service in the former president’s name.
Mandela Day is a relatively new tradition in South Africa. People are asked to take 67 minutes out of their day to volunteer. The number is 67 because that is how many years Mr. Mandela fought for civil rights.
Sello Hatang, spokesman for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, says the day is about honoring Mandela’s legacy by continuing his work.
“The significance of the day is in response to Madiba’s call, which he made in 2008 in London, where he was saying to all of us it’s time for new hands to carry the baby, it’s time for new leadership to carry the struggle forward. And to ensure that we build a much more caring world, where we can fight inequality and poverty. Not as a gesture of charity, but as a call of justice," he said.
In Johannesburg, there were hundreds of projects around the city, from sprucing up schools, to working with the elderly, or cleaning up the city.
At the Braamfontein Spruit, Tina Sekhu was helping clean up refuse with her co-workers from Nedbank.
“This is actually humbling to see a lot of people committing to different initiatives and actually making the 67 minutes to make a difference. I’m very honored to actually participate," she said.
Vusi Khanyile, the Chairman of Thebe Investment Corporation in Rosebank, says his company is taking on a project of helping build a library in the township Orlando West and donated books to the Mandela Foundation. But his employees are making individual efforts as well.
“In my personal case, I’m going to be taking time off from the company. I’m not going to be here this afternoon, as I’m going to be meeting with a young man that I’m going to be sponsoring and mentoring through university. He comes from the rural areas. He had a string of distinctions from the most impoverished school in the area and is starting at Wits [University in Johannesburg]. And I’m going to be walking the path with him through his university career," he said.
While the day is an opportunity to serve others, some say it is an important step in moving forward with a new legacy for the country.
Nzima, who studies management at the University of Johannesburg, says the country must keep progressing and not get complacent standing in Mr. Mandela’s shadow.
“People have found a comfort zone and haven’t actually tried to soul search and enhance their abilities to become the next great thing in the world. I find it very true that as people here in South Africa, we don’t actually go out there and make our lives the best for other people, not only for ourselves but for actually other people that are out there," he said.
Stuart Hoy, who organized the clean-up of Braamfontein Spruit, says the day is a great call to action and for leadership.
“I don’t think there’s anyone nearly close to Madiba that is filling the space that his legacy will leave. We need a million of them. The thing that I love, and Madiba said this in his inauguration speech, was we’re all meant to shine as children do. And people hang around in the shadows, and it’s a very South African thing where we don’t do something in case someone tells us something is wrong or chops us down," he said. "We need a million Madibas, there’s space for that. There’s space for every South African to do something which is awesome. And this is small, you know?”
Khanyile, the executive in Rosebank, says the day needs to become an essential part of the national calendar.
"A country needs to build shared traditions … the Madiba legacy is one such important common tradition for South Africans. Irrespective of what race or religion or political ideology you supported before our democratic change, Madiba became an instrument and a symbol for the coming together for the different streams that make up South Africa," he said.
Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, spent the day quietly in his home village of Qunu. He no longer appears in public but his activism is here on full display.