MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Today, South Africa marked the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela. The former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been hospitalized in Pretoria for six weeks because of a lung infection.
Around the country, South Africans marked Mandela Day with songs, tributes and volunteer work, as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: School children across South Africa today started their day by singing "Happy Birthday" to Nelson Mandela. But even such a simple gesture, like singing "Happy Birthday" illustrates the complexity of South Africa, its wounded history and the challenges facing the country. During the anti-apartheid struggle, black students rioted over efforts to force them to use Afrikaans in school. Today, girls at a predominantly white, private school in Johannesburg sang "Happy Birthday" in Mandela's native African language, Xhosa.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language) (Singing)
BEAUBIEN: The rendition then flowed in to English and eventually Afrikaans. Afterwards these girls made blankets for residents of an old folks' home, as part of a nationwide campaign asking people to volunteer 67 minutes of their time, in honor of Mandela. The 67 minutes is a tribute to Mandela's 67 years of service to South Africa as a freedom fighter, political prisoner and politician.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)
BEAUBIEN: Outside Mandela's hospital in Pretoria, there was a far more raucous scene than at the private girl's school in Johannesburg.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)
BEAUBIEN: The local police marching band showed up. People sang freedom songs. South African soldiers marched in formation past the hospital gate. Balloons with Mandela's face on them waved above a bustling crowd.
Jacobeth Madonsela came with her grandson to wish Mandela a happy birthday.
JACOBETH MADONSELA: We hope God can touch him now this afternoon and heal him, so that he can see what is happening outside here, that the whole world love him very much.
BEAUBIEN: Her 22-year-old grandson, Koketso, credits Mandela and the African National Congress with ending apartheid and white-minority rule in South Africa. Koketso says his generation, known as the Born Frees, owes a debt of gratitude to Mandela for the almost three decades he spent in prison as part of the liberation struggle.
KOKETSO: It's a very great feeling for us to be free today. So we are very grateful. That's why we are here. We've been here since early in the morning and we are still here. And I think we are going to leave here late in the evening.
BEAUBIEN: In addition to today being Nelson Mandela's birthday, it's also his 15th wedding anniversary to Graca Machel, who's been faithfully at his side over the last six weeks. Current President Jacob Zuma also visited the ailing, elder statesman today. The African National Congress delivered a huge birthday cake to the hospital. His ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stopped by. Mandela's daughter, Zindzi, says the family's present to the patriarch was a collage of family photographs.
Members of Mandela's family say that he's improving but the government spokesman, who's been issuing statements on Mandela's health, says he remains in critical condition.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES)
BEAUBIEN: But whatever his condition, the street party outside his hospital continued throughout the day. And several people mentioned that they wished Madiba, as Mandela is affectionately called, could come out in one of his flowered, button-front shirts and do his famous shuffle dance in the streets with them one more time.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Pretoria.
CROWD: (Singing) Happy birthday with lots of friends and family, ba-doom-doom. Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday, you need no wo-wo-worry, ba-doom-doom. It's a good time this day for only you.
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