Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images
Front pages of South African newspapers commemorate former South African President Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday.
Front pages of South African newspapers commemorate former South African President Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday. Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images
Nelson Mandela, one of the world's most revered elder statesmen, turned 90 on Friday.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, South Africa's first democratically elected leader, spent decades in prison, as did many others who dedicated their lives to the anti-apartheid struggle. They fought for liberation and equality in a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.
The first time many heard Mandela's voice was in the 1960s, when he was on trial, charged with treason. In a three-hour closing argument, Mandela — a lawyer by profession — defended his actions to end white minority rule. He told the judge:
"It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized but, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die," he said.
Mandela was found guilty in 1964 and began serving what was arguably the most celebrated life sentence in history.
On Feb. 11, 1990, 27 years later, Mandela was a free man. He was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994, heading a multiracial government for five years.
Praise singers, presidents and paupers celebrated his inauguration.
But Mandela warned that tough times remained ahead for South Africans on a Long Walk to Freedom, the title of his autobiography.
"I have travelled this long road to freedom. I trust I did not falter. I made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that, after crossing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to cross,"he said.
After just one term as president, Mandela handed over the reins of power. But he kept working. His compatriots thanked him for promoting racial harmony and national unity — and choosing forgiveness and reconciliation over revenge. At the grand old age of 86, after dedicating himself to children, education, eradicating poverty, and a new struggle — the fight against HIV/AIDS — Mandela had this message for South Africans and the world:
"What I've come to do here this morning is to make an appeal more than an announcement. I'm turning 86 in a few weeks' time — and that is a longer life than most people are granted. I am confident that nobody present here today will accuse me of selfishness if I ask to spend time, while I'm still in good health, with my family, my friends and also with myself."
To loud guffaws, amusement, ululating and enthusiastic applause, Mandela added:
"When I told one of my advisers a few months ago that I wanted to retire, he growled at me, 'Goat, you are retired!' If that is really the case, then I should say I now announce that I'm retiring from retirement! Henceforth, the appeal, therefore, is 'Don't call me, I'll call you!'"
An old friend, fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate and anti-apartheid campaigner, Emeritus Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, summed up the feelings of many as Mandela turned 90.
"A wonderul man, wonderful, wonderful gift to us! Thank you God, that you gave us Madiba. Hey, Madiba — enjoy your birthday, man, and stick around a little longer!" he said.
Mandela, fondly known by his clan name, Madiba, has always said that what he missed most during his many years in jail was the sound of children's voices.
On his 90th birthday, he received tributes from all over the world and messages from many children across Africa, including this one from a young South African girl: "Dear Madiba, on your happy day, we thank you for uniting the people of our country, so that all children can grow up together, never mind what language they speak or color they may be. Happy 90th birthday."