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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And South Africans are celebrating an emotional birthday. Nelson Mandela is 95 years old today.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMEN SINGING)

GREENE: That's the sound of women singing for Mandela, gathered this morning outside the hospital where he's been since last month. The hero of the anti-apartheid movement remains in critical condition, though the government released another statement today saying his health is steadily improving.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Johannesburg that Mandela's fragile health has South Africans thinking about the long-term legacy of their first black president.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The Nelson Mandela Center of Memory is asking people in South Africa and around the world to spend 67 minutes today volunteering in their communities in tribute to the ailing former president. The 67 minutes represents the 67 years Mandela gave in public service, fighting against the apartheid system of segregation and later as a statesman.

Ever since he was hospitalized more than a month ago, small shrines to Mandela have popped up all across the country. His picture hangs in shop windows. The newspapers and TV stations give daily updates on Madiba, as he's affectionately known here.

BRENDA MOTSEARI: Nelson Mandela is the father, a mentor, a motivator, a director. He's everything to South Africans.

BEAUBIEN: Brenda Motseari is just coming out of a Mass at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in the Rockville section of Soweto. She says Mandela is in everyone's prayers at the moment.

MOTSEARI: That praying for Mandela, we know through prayers miracles may not happen, but it keeps us going as the nation.

BEAUBIEN: Motseari says she'll never forget the day in February of 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released after spending 27 years in prison. He greeted a huge crowd in Cape Town by raising his clenched fist.

MOTSEARI: That's my memory, the first day when he picked up the fist after coming out from prison. That was the day because I was watching attentively and then he clenched the fist to say: Amandla.

BEAUBIEN: Throughout his decades in prison, amandla, or power had become the rallying cry of the anti-Apartheid movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

NELSON MANDELA: Today the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future.

BEAUBIEN: Before that speech from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall, many South Africans didn't even know what Mandela looked like. Pictures of him had been banned by the apartheid government. Stepping out from prison, Mandela called for a negotiated end to apartheid and an end to white minority rule. That eventually happened and in 1994, Mandela was elected president in South Africa's first nonracial, democratic elections.

The pastor at the Regina Mundi church, Sebastian Rossouw, says Mandela's life continues to be an inspiration to South Africans.

PASTOR SEBASTIAN ROSSOUW: Growing up in apartheid years as a young boy, one was not free.

BEAUBIEN: Rossouw and his family couldn't travel freely. His father wasn't allowed to set foot in certain parts of town. Blacks weren't allowed to vote. There were separate buses, schools and toilets for whites. Interracial marriages were forbidden. Blacks and coloreds ended up in the worst jobs. Educational options for Rossouw were restricted by law.

But the priest says Mandela made it clear that any obstacle, any injustice can be overcome.

ROSSOUW: The legacy that Mandela brings is that despite what the past has dealt you, do not allow it to determine your future. And I think for many of us, including myself, that's a message that we've taken to heart, to say, yes, we have a bad past but this will not affect the future we are looking towards.

BEAUBIEN: Rossouw says the moment that he will always remember about Mandela was when South Africa was hosting the 1995 rugby World Cup.

ROSSOUW: Many people might not realize the significance of Madiba being there.

BEAUBIEN: But at the time, rugby was considered to be a white Afrikaner sport. Despite this, Mandela put on a green jersey of the Springboks, the national team, showed up at the stadium and cheered on the predominantly white South African squad.

ROSSOUW: That day stands out for me, one of the most special moments, not only for him but for the country because that was a moment where South Africans really came together irrespective of race, color, creed and tribe. There is a moment of true unity.

BEAUBIEN: Rossouw says he's confident that even after Mandela passes away, Mandela's vision of a nonracial South Africa that offers equal opportunities to all its citizens will endure. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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