Mandela speaks out for the poor on 90th birthday


Johannesburg : Former South African president Nelson Mandela Friday expressed sympathy for his country’s poor on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

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“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,” he said from Qunu, his ancestral village in Eastern Cape province, where he is celebrating his birthday privately with family and friends.

“Poverty has gripped our people. If you are poor, you are not likely to live long,” he said in an interview.

On Friday, South Africans showered praise and affection on the country’s favourite son Mandela on his birthday amid appeals for a renewed commitment to his legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Mandela’s predecessor as president, F.W. de Klerk, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993 for his work with the anti-apartheid icon towards ending white minority rule, called him one of the greatest figures of the past century and a “born leader”.

“All of us as South Africans glow in the light of fame in part because we stand on the shoulders of this (Mandela) and other giants,” President Thabo Mbeki, whose leadership style has at times drawn unfavourable comparisons with that of Mandela, said in his message.

Radio stations were flooded with messages of goodwill towards the man who came to embody the struggle for a democratic South Africa during his 27 years in prison, with only a few voices criticising the outpouring of sentimentality.

As rock group Simple Minds’ 1988 song “Mandela Day” rang out across the airwaves, many wanted to share their memories of meeting the man credited with a Midas touch for steering South Africa through the transition to democracy without major bloodshed.

Prisoners were also marking the festivities at a ceremony at the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, formerly Victor Verster Prison, from which Mandela emerged a free man on Feb 11, 1990.

But the occasion also gave rise to expressions of concerns about the perceived erosion of Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation and forgiveness.

As Business Day newspaper noted in an editorial referring to recent remarks from a youth leader of Mandela’s African National Congress exhorting violence in support of ANC president Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s “long walk” to freedom had, in his own words, “not yet ended”.

At a birthday dinner in London last month, Mandela expressed concern over the two weeks of xenophobic bloodletting in South Africa in May, in which over 60 African migrants were killed.

Mandela has chosen to celebrate his birthday with a private party for friends and family at his ancestral home.

Despite the private nature of the event, his compound was swamped by television crews Friday ahead of the arrival of an expected 500 or so guests for Saturday’s party.

Invitees will likely also be called on to raise a glass to Mandela and former Mozambican first lady, Graca Machel, who celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary Friday.