Madiba 90

Qunu comes to a standstill

2008-07-18 09:00

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 - Gardeners mowed the lawn outside the tiny museum honouring local hero Nelson Mandela, while a work crew laid new tarmac on the road outside his house and a school choir rehearsed a song they created especially for him.

The anti-apartheid icon planned to spend his 90th birthday on Friday at home in the village of Qunu with his family, and the whole village is celebrating.

"We are very excited," school principal Mpondomise Ndzambo said, sitting in this office beneath a photograph of the former president. "Usually these celebrations are done in Johannesburg, so this is a way of being part of it."

Perched atop a hill, the Nkalane Junior Secondary School overlooks Mandela's sprawling homestead and enjoys a special relationship with its famous neighbour.

Mandela helped raise funds so the school could build new classrooms and move out of a dilapidated mud structure. He used to visit often, but doesn't these days as his age catches up with him.

"He has done a lot for us, especially for the school," Ndzambo said. "He suffered a lot trying to get this South Africa to be free and fair. I think he is a great man."

Birthday celebrations

His birthday is annual cause for celebration in South Africa and draws attention from his many local and international admirers. South Africa has been celebrating since the start of the year, with museum exhibitions, reunions of anti-apartheid veterans, a weekend speech by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the launch of special coins and stamps.

Mandela at first planned a quiet affair. But there are now a variety of events planned in his honour in and around Qunu - a soccer festival, a pop concert and lunch for 500 politicians, veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle and other guests at his home on Saturday.

An exhibition of letters that children wrote to Mandela and the late U.S. civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks will be displayed at the Nelson Mandela Museum, a short distance from his house.

In the provincial capital of Mthatha, youngsters put the finishing touches to birthday greetings on a length of wall along Nelson Mandela Drive. "Your people salute you. Happy birthday, Madiba," the sign read, using the clan name by which South Africans affectionately refer to Mandela.

Outside the local museum, a stage was being erected and banners hung bearing pictures of Mandela as a young and older man.

At Mandela's home, cars and catering vans shuttled in and out during the day and a large tent went up behind the two-storey house.

The homestead, which includes some of the only green fields visible for miles, stretches from the main national highway down to a large dam. A small herd of cattle graze nearby.

'Happy Birthday, Tat'u Mandela'

Up on the hillside, it seemed the only lesson of the day at the Nkalane Junior Secondary School was Mandela's birthday.

In the classroom where the choir was practicing, the respectful greeting: "Happy Birthday, Tat'u (father) Mandela" was written neatly on the chalkboard.

The choir of children of all ages, who expected to perform for Mandela on Friday, chose traditional songs praising the former president as a great man and tunes that were sung by activists during the fight against apartheid.

Yaneliswa Khandawuli, 16, wrote a poem for the occasion, dedicated to the "hero of the heroes."

"Nelson Mandela changed our lives," she said. "All of us, black and white we are now the rainbow nation. I love him very much."

Khandawuli wished Mandela a long life and a happy day. But she really wished for something for herself.

"I don't want God to take him away from us," she said.

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