QUNU, South Africa – Songs, laughter, teasing and tender words marked Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday at a grand luncheon for presidents, village elders and African royalty in a rural area where the Nobel Peace Prize winner had once herded cattle as a boy.
Saturday’s festivities followed quieter private celebrations with Mandela’s family in this rural southeastern village on Friday, the day he turned 90.
Saturday was a grand occasion at a festive tent outside his homestead in Qunu, 600 miles south of Johannesburg.
The anti-apartheid icon walked into the tent with his successor as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, stopping to personally greet some of the 500 honored guests as he made his way to the head table.
The guests, many dressed in traditional beaded cloths, animals skins and feather headdresses, cheered and stood while a Xhosa choir sang: “Here is our hope!”
Wearing, an intricately patterned shirt in shades of brown, Mandela looked relaxed and cheerful as he listened attentively to the accolades being heaped on him.
Mbeki called Mandela a “great liberator.” Zuma said the gathering was a celebration of “a life and legacy of a father, grandfather, comrade, warrior, soldier, nation builder and statesman.”
Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda caught the festive mood with a tuneful solo of “Happy Birthday” followed by a teasing verse: “How old are you? State secret?” Then the 84-year-old Kaunda jogged over to shake Mandela’s hand.
The event also marked the 10th anniversary of his marriage to child rights activist Graca Machel and despite the large number of guests had a feeling of an intimate family affair.
Flowers were arranged in vases of tin, a traditional material for 10th anniversary gifts, at the head table Saturday and the couple sat close together, nodding and clapping appreciatively, during moving tributes by family members.
“This birthday celebrations is one of the very small ways that we as your family can show our love, respect and appreciation for all you have done,” said one of Mandela’s granddaughters, Nandi Mandela.
Machel’s daughter Josina said the couple symbolized hope. “The two of you have taught us a lot about the virtues of love,” she said.
In the climax of the afternoon master of ceremonies and lawmaker Bantu Holomisa toasted the couple. “All of you join me in wishing them both all our love, happiness and long life,” he said. “Long life!”
To the sound of ululating, Mandela was presented with an album of family photographs and testimonials as a gift, complied by his children and grandchildren, bound in aluminum, another 10th anniversary material.
Mandela beamed with pleasure as he and Machel eagerly tore off the wrappings and ribbons, surrounded by grandchildren who also assisted him in blowing out the candles on a large cake. The cake had nine gold candles to mark Mandela’s birthday and 10 silver ones to mark the anniversary.
Eager to thank his guests, Mandela rose to his feet and spoke for a few minutes with his characteristic self-deprecating humor.
“As you know I am not a speaker at all, and I am not going to make any exception on this occasion, except to say thank you for all you have done for me,” he said.
Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. He was released in 1990 to lead negotiations that ended decades of racist white rule, then was elected president in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
He completed his term in 1999 and did not run again, but has continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa. Age has slowed him in recent years, but many still remain in awe of his stamina. Just last month he was the honored guest for a huge charity concert in London’s Hyde Park.
“I would say that for a 90-year-old man who has been through what he has been through, he is in exceptional shape,” one of his doctors, Peter Friedland, said at the party Saturday.
Mandela looked and sounded vigorous Friday when he gave a brief interview to a small group of reporters from The Associated Press and other media, his first such exchange in several years.
During Friday’s interview, he expressed deep concern about the poverty that still grips wide swaths of South Africa. The economy has grown steadily in recent years, but the benefits have yet to trickle to the poorest. Most blacks were stripped of resources and given inferior education under apartheid, leaving them unprepared to enjoy the country’s development now.
Mandela’s message was simple – the wealthy must do more.
“There are many people in South Africa who are rich and who can share those riches with those not so fortunate, who have not been able to conquer poverty,” Mandela said Friday.
While Saturday’s occasion was celebratory, there were also a few somber moments.
Nandi Mandela called on her grandfather’s fans to emulate him by “making a difference in your own communities.”
“This is one of the gifts you can give him,” she said as her grandfather nodded.
George Bizos, a lawyer who defended Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders during the era of white rule, urged young and old to try and understand what his old friend stood for.
“It’s the solution to the problems that are facing the country, facing the continent, facing the world,” he said.
But one guest worries that the legacy of Mandela and other “giants” of the struggle against apartheid such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo is being lost.
“What have we learned? Were their sacrifices for nothing?” businesswoman Pam Pokane said in an interview pointing out corruption, poverty and a growing sense of political disillusion in South Africa.
“We have lost our moral compass. We have lost who we are and why we went into the struggle,” she said.
Photo: Nelson Mandela