Nelson Mandela has celebrated his 89th birthday today with a star-studded football match and the launch of a humanitarian campaign, joined by former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other elders of the global village.
The elders event kicked off with about 250 people taking to their feet to sing “Happy Birthday” as Mandela beamed with delight before being helped to the stage by his wife and Carter.
“How God must love South Africa to have given us such a priceless gift,” Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s former Anglican archbishop and chairman of the elders group, told Mandela. “You bowled us all over by your graciousness, magnanimity and generosity of spirit.”
Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. Released in 1990, he led negotiations to end decades of white rule. In 1994, in South Africa’s first fully democratic elections, he was elected president.
He left office in 1999 but has continued to work to reduce poverty, illiteracy and Aids in Africa.
The Elders stems from an idea of Virgin boss Richard Branson, who shares a birthday with Mandela, and musician Peter Gabriel, who were present at today’s launch.
The Elders, who include several Nobel peace laureates – among them Mandela - are dedicated to finding new ways to foster peace and resolve global crises, and to supporting the next generation of leaders.
The Elders are Annan; Ela Bhatt, a women’s rights campaigner from India; former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Carter; Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese envoy to the UN who started his diplomatic career in Africa; Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, a long-time campaigner for children’s rights; Mandela; former Irish President Mary Robinson; Tutu; and Muhammad Yunus, founder of the pioneering micro-credit institution known as Grameen Bank.
“I am confident that The Elders can become real role models. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair,” Mandela said.
“This initiative cannot have come at a more appropriate time. It brings together an extraordinary collection of people with skills and diversity to undertake what we know is an enormous task.”
Mandela, who walked with difficulty today and was not expected to take an active role in the new group, joked about his attempts to stay in retirement.
While still maintaining his ramrod straight posture and calm deportment, Mandela is struggling to walk, his ankles badly swollen. He appears thinner but less frail than he has at other recent appearances.
The atmosphere swung from tears to laughter. At one point, Gabriel sang his Biko unaccompanied, leaving Tutu weeping. Black leader Steve Biko died at the hands of the apartheid security forces 30 years ago.
The Elders have received €13m in funding over three years from Branson and others. The members were to decide their priorities over the next few months, and would work with established groups.
Questioned about how effective the group could be, Carter said: “My prayer is that the great potential of The Elders might be realised though sound judgment and through dedication and courage.”
The Elders event was part of a week of birthday festivities featuring visits by Mandela’s many friends, including former US President Bill Clinton. Messages of support rolled in all day from all corners of the world.
“The country and the world are privileged to celebrate the life of such an outstanding leader of our people,” said President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela in 1999.
Brazilian football legend Pele and three-time African player of the year Samuel Eto’o, of Cameroon, were to be among more than 50 past and present stars of the game taking part in “90 Minutes for Mandela” match later today
Mandela, who is not expected to attend the game, smiled yesterday as he received an official match shirt with the number 89 – his age – emblazoned on it.
The match, to be played in Cape Town, will pit Africa against the rest of the world.
Before the match, Jack Warner, vice president of FIFA, conferred honorary membership on the Makana Football Association, the football league formed by prisoners on Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
Separated from his comrades, Mandela watched the games from his cell window until authorities built a wall to isolate him further.
“During the dark years of our incarceration, the association drew together all the prisoners on the island around the beautiful game of soccer,” Mandela said. “In this way it helped uphold the values of tolerance, of inclusiveness and reconciliation, and of non-racialism and peace that are still dear to all of us today.”