Madiba 90

'Here is our hope!'

2008-07-19 16:47

Special Report

Mandela: SA needs good leaders

Now as much as ever, South Africa needs disciplined leaders, Nelson Mandela has said at birthday celebration in Pretoria.

Qunu - Guests stood and cheered, a Xhosa choir sang "Here is our hope!" and a smiling Nelson Mandela welcomed hundreds of well-wishers in a festive tent outside his home on Saturday as the country formally celebrated the anti-apartheid icon's 90th birthday.

Mandela - walking in with his successor as President Thabo Mbeki and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma - stopped to personally greet a few of the 500 honoured guests as he made his way to the head table.

Some guests had come to the party in exquisitely beaded traditional skins, others wore T-shirts emblazoned with his name. Mandela wore an intricately patterned shirt in shades of brown.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner icon had celebrated privately with his family in his home village in the country's rural southeast on Friday, the day he turned 90. Saturday was a grand occasion at his homestead in Qunu.

'Today is a very special day'

The party tent was decorated with the blue and orange colours of Mandela's Xhosa tribe and with his clan's crest - a bee flanked by tree branches, symbolizing industry, community and strength.

George Bizos was among the fellow veterans of the struggle to transform South Africa from a white supremacist pariah nation into a multiracial democracy who came to the party on Saturday. He identified Mandela's optimism as his most "sterling quality".

"He always believed that there would be freedom around the corner," said Bizos, a lawyer who defended Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders during the era of white rule.

Tributes from Mbeki and others and performances by choirs and dancers were planned under the tent. As the party started, herd boys beat drums outside, while an orchestra played inside.

"Clearly, today is a very special day for all of us in South Africa and around the world," said Mac Maharaj, who served time with Mandela on Robben Island, and then served in Mandela's Cabinet.

Mandela 'in very good shape'

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 the country's first democratic elections in 1994.

He completed his term in 1999 and did not run again, but had continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and Aids in Africa.

Age had slowed him in recent years, but many still remained in awe of his stamina. Just last month he was the honoured guest for a huge charity concert in London's Hyde Park.

"For a man of 90, he's in very good shape," one of his doctors, Peter Friedland, said at the party on Saturday.

He looked and sounded vigorous on Friday after he gave a brief interview to reporters, his first such exchange in several years. He was expected to address the party guests later on Saturday.

On Friday, he expressed deep concern at 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.

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