There are few people in the world who can say they received millions of birthday wishes. But this morning millions of school children across South Africa sang a special Happy Birthday song in tribute of their country’s most esteemed icon.
As he turns 93 today, Nelson Mandela, affectionately called “Madiba” by South African children, has done in his years on earth, the work of many lifetimes. The leader and former President of South Africa was instrumental in the reversal of the racist Apartheid policies that once permeated that society. Mandela spent 27 in prison before becoming South Africa’s first black president and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against racial and economic injustice. He is not only a respected figure within his country, Mandela’s influence is global in reach. Today, world leaders including President Obama and the current South African President Jacob Zuma paid their respects and sent their best to Mandela. Obama’s statement called Mandela “a beacon for the global community, and for all who work for democracy, justice and reconciliation.”
In recent years, Mandela has struggled with his health, making a surprise appearance last month to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama while she was on the South Africa leg of her trip. Today, he is expected to spend his special day quietly with his family in his home the village of Qunu, some 600 miles south of Johannesburg.
Speaking on the impact of Mandela, South Africa’s Desmond Tutu said in an interview today:
Many young black people don’t know very much about the oppression we had here in South Africa — and it only ended 20 years ago! They don’t know what Madiba [Mandela] did for our country. Maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t mull over things that are too awful to think about. But I worry that because they don’t know the past, they’ll forget the price that was paid for our freedom. Then they may not value their freedom.
Giving his thoughts on Mandela’s old age, Tutu said it weighs heavy on his heart as it does for many others:
It’s becoming increasingly clear that there will have to be a life after Madiba. People are preparing themselves, but it will devastating. That’s why some of us have been saying, “let’s prepare ourselves for the inevitable”. He has given so much of himself and has been fantastic as an icon of reconciliation and forgiveness. The best memorial to him is for us to become the kind of people he gave his life for: a free, caring and compassionate South Africa, and a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it.