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Nelson Mandela Celebrates 85th Birthday

July 18, 2003

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ They adore him like a favorite uncle, idolize him like a rock star and revere him like a religious icon.

South Africans of all races and ages praised Nelson Mandela as he _ and the entire nation _ celebrated his 85th birthday on Friday.

Newspapers printed commemorative editions. Businesses sponsored billboards and television commercials saluting the former president. South African Airways named a new jet in his honor, and television stations streamed birthday greetings from his people across their screens.

``I personally think he is a saint,″ said Jill Dos Reis after Mandela warmly greeted her 10-year-old daughter, Nikita, who has leukemia.

While Mandela is respected and admired across the world, to South Africans he is a superstar of near-mythic proportions, a hero who preached racial reconciliation to the apartheid-scarred nation despite the 27 years he spent imprisoned by the white, racist regime.

Mandela, who won the nation’s first all-race elections after the fall of apartheid in 1994, retired in 1999. But he is as popular as ever.

``He’s loved by all and sundry, whether you’re white or black, whether you’re young or old,″ said Ali Bacher, South Africa’s former cricket chief.

His popularity has spawned an entire kitsch industry. There are Mandela refrigerator magnets, drink coasters with a Warholian portrait of him in a rainbow of electric hues, even postcards that substitute him and his wife, Graca Machel, for the stoic farmer with pitchfork standing beside his daughter in the painting ``American Gothic.″

His face has appeared on a South African coin, a metropolitan area was named for him and some business leaders hope to build a statue in his likeness that would be taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Mandela’s birthday is being marked by a whirlwind of celebrations.

Former President Clinton is scheduled to deliver the first annual Nelson Mandela lecture Saturday in his honor. That evening, some 1,600 guests will pay tribute to Mandela at a banquet. The guest list has been kept secret, but local media say it includes Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, as well as several world leaders and royals.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg will officially be opened Sunday with a road race.

The celebration of his actual birthday Friday was more low key.

A white tent was set up in the closed road outside his house for Mandela to greet visitors during the day. Instead of 85 candles on a birthday cake, a four-tiered tower of 85 birthday cakes was set up inside.

At 8 a.m., a South African military marching band played ``Happy Birthday″ for the former resistance leader. They then broke into a tune written for the occasion _ the ``March for Madiba″ _ referring to the clan name South Africans call Mandela with affection.

``I feel very happy indeed,″ the Nobel Peace laureate said when he popped out of his house to meet with a group of disabled children.

``So nice to see you,″ he said as he circulated among the children, greeting each in turn.

``I want you to be encouraged to know that in spite of your disabilities, you are human beings and you have hopes and wishes like all of us,″ he told them. ``You’re accepted as ordinary human beings, like myself.″

Many South Africans view Mandela as far from ordinary.

``He’s a hero,″ said Johnson Ibe, 29.

``He saved the country,″ said 58-year-old Spiros Micouris.

``He’s the greatest man that ever lived in this country and one of the best leaders the world has ever seen,″ said Waheed Arai, 34.

His stature harks back to John F. Kennedy or Winston Churchill, but few politicians in this more cynical era have achieved his level of adulation, said Tom Lodge, head of the political science department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Mandela projects a mixture of heroism, charisma, warmth and self-deprecating humor that appeals as much to poor, black farmworkers as it does to wealthy, white businessmen, Lodge said.

That rapport is no accident, he said.

``Sometimes it isn’t sufficiently appreciated what a skilled performer Mandela has been throughout his political career,″ Lodge said. ``He’s a very, very clever man.″

But he is far from perfect.

His government was accused of cronyism and paying insufficient attention to the burgeoning AIDS crisis, and he has been known to be hot-tempered and stubborn.

Most of the birthday editorials, which appeared in every major South African newspaper Friday, briefly mentioned that Mandela did have his flaws.

Then they returned to their effusive praise.

``Through the ages, the human race has had its icons _ men and women who rose above ordinariness to inspire their generations,″ The Mail and Guardian weekly said. ``In our generation, the gods bequeathed us Nelson Mandela.″

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