UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called on people around the world to carry out volunteer work to mark the 93rd birthday Monday of South Africa’s iconic elder statesman Nelson Mandela.
In schools across South Africa’s 12.4 million children will on Monday sing a special version of “Happy Birthday”, written by a local composer, for the former president and anti-apartheid hero.
But UN officials and the Nelson Mandela Foundation also want people to sign up for 67 minutes of voluntary work — a minute for every year he devoted himself to the political struggle.
“Together, the best way we can thank Nelson Mandela for his work is by taking action for others and inspiring change,” said Ban in a statement.
His birthday, July 18, will for the third year running be observed as Mandela Day, which the United Nations has a recognized as a day when people are called to give something back to their community.
“It is hard to sum up Mandela’s achievements and contribution to the country’s struggle for freedom,” said Shadrack Gutto, of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa.
“A leader of Mandela’s calibre serves as a symbol of humility and selflessness.”
It was unclear where Mandela would spend his birthday and his foundation refused to give out any details. But he is expected to celebrate it with his family, which he has rarely left since a health scare in January when he was hospitalized for an acute respiratory infection.
The ailing former president arrived at his childhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape on Thursday in a military medical aircraft.
His trip was done discreetly and the public and journalists were kept away.
It was unclear where Mandela would spend his birthday as his foundation refused to comment on his plans.
He was last seen in public just before his last birthday, when he and his third wife Graca Machel made an appearance at the football World Cup final.
It’s a far cry from the fanfare that once greeted his birthday.
For his 90th, Mandela jetted off to London for a charity concert with the likes of Will Smith and Annie Lennox to raise money for his AIDS charity; hosted a speech in Johannesburg by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; and threw a party for hundreds of children at his home.
This year, 93 children from around the country are invited to his foundation on Monday, but they aren’t expected to meet the man most South Africans know as Madiba, his clan name.
Companies, charities and celebrities have all announced plans for the day.
A group of bikers left Johannesburg at the beginning of the week to traverse the country doing voluntary work in poor communities. Their 2,200-kilometre trip ends Monday in Pretoria.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter and American reality show star Kimora Lee Simmons were among 67 famous people who inked their handprints to the Mandela Legacy Canvas, which will be auctioned in Cape Town this weekend to raise money for charity.
Schools and orphanages are opening their doors to volunteers who clean and paint, while blood banks are operating extra hours for an expected rush of donors.
As South Africa’s first black president, Mandela is revered for ushering in democracy and for his personal sacrifices in fighting the white-minority apartheid regime that jailed him for 27 years.
On his release in 1990, he led negotiations that paved the way to elections in 1994. He used his warmth, dignity and self-deprecating humour to help heal racial divisions and opened a process of reconciliation.
Those values can be in short supply among South Africa’s current leaders who seem embroiled in an endless series of scandals from corruption to hate speech, said political analyst Steven Friedman.
“The political climate is tense right now. Racial divisions are showing and space for national debate is needed,” said Friedman.
“Leaders these days use the government to dominate others. It is important that politicians and society don’t lose sight of Mandela’s vision for a united South Africa.”