PRETORIA, South Africa — Nelson Mandela said the African National Congress (ANC) was responsible for making him the person he is today, and called last Saturday for unity in South Africa’s governing party.
“I would be nothing without the ANC,” Mandela told tens of thousands of people at a rally marking his 90th birthday. “The struggle has been my life and the ANC led that struggle.”
The crowd broke into thunderous applause and wild cheers as Mandela made his way on to the stage at a local sports stadium.
Wearing a gold patterned shirt, Mandela looked thrilled, smiled and waved to the crowd.
He urged people to not focus their celebrations on him, but rather the party that helped bring about the end of white racist rule in South Africa.
“Do not celebrate an individual,” he said. “Celebrate the achievements and reaffirm the values of a great organization.”
Mandela was flanked by President Thabo Mbeki and ANC president Jacob Zuma. The two fought bitterly over the party leadership last year. The battle seriously damaged the reputation of the party as it heads for general elections next year.
Mandela made an impassioned plea for unity and strong leadership.
“Let no individual, section, faction or group ever regard itself as greater than the organization,” he said. “Our nation comes from a history of deep division and strife; let us never, through our deeds or words, take our people back down that road.”
Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. He was released in 1990 and was elected president in 1994.
He completed his term in 1999 and did not run again, but has taken a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa.
“We came together as a nation to end the scourge of apartheid,” he said last Saturday. “Today we are challenged to end poverty and all its attendant suffering.”
Mandela beamed and clapped along as a group of small children sang a song for him. Behind him stood his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and his wife of 10 years, Graça Machel, arm-in-arm, swaying to the music.
Later, Mandela cut a huge cake while the party leadership and his family toasted him. Balloons in the green, gold and black colors of the ANC were released into the sky.
South Africa has been celebrating Mandela’s July 18 birthday since the start of the year with museum exhibitions, reunions of anti-apartheid veterans and the launch of special coins and stamps.
After formal events in London and at his rural homestead, last Saturday was a chance for South Africans to wish him happy birthday.
People poured out of buses singing and wearing white T-shirts with Mandela’s face emblazoned on them. Mary Skhosana, 19, came from Muldersdrift, a small town west of Johannesburg, to wish Mandela happy birthday.
“To me, he has been a father, a hero,” she said.
After changing his country so profoundly, then turning his energies during his first “retirement” to tackling problems like AIDS, Nelson Mandela has left the stage to younger leaders. But South Africa and the world seem reluctant to let him fade into retirement. More »
Former opposition leader Tony Leon said some South Africans probably felt deprived because Mandela was holding the bash in Britain. “But that perhaps is an appropriate metaphor, because South Africa shares Mandela with the world,” Leon said. “... He rises above party and personality as the most powerful and potent and positive symbol of all that is good about our country.” More »