Ravi Nessman Associated Press Jul. 19, 2003
JOHANNESBURG - They adore
him like a favorite uncle, idolize him like a rock star and
revere him like a religious icon.
South Africans of all
races and ages praised Nelson Mandela as he and the entire
nation celebrated his 85th birthday on
Newspapers printed commemorative editions.
Businesses sponsored billboards and television commercials
saluting the former president. South African Airways named a
new jet in his honor, and television stations streamed
birthday greetings from his people across their
While Mandela is respected and admired around
the world, to South Africans he is a superstar of nearly
mythic proportions, a hero who preached racial reconciliation
to the apartheid-scarred nation despite the 27 years he spent
imprisoned by the White, racist regime.
won the nation's first all-race elections after the fall of
apartheid in 1994, retired in 1999. But he is as popular as
"He's loved by all and sundry, whether you're
White or Black, whether you're young or old," said Ali Bacher,
South Africa's former cricket chief.
His popularity has
spawned an entire kitsch industry. There are Mandela
refrigerator magnets, drink coasters with a Warholian portrait
of him in a rainbow of electric hues, even postcards that
substitute him and his wife, Graca Machel, for the stoic
farmer with pitchfork standing beside his daughter in the
painting American Gothic.
His face has appeared
on a South African coin, a metropolitan area was named for him
and some business leaders hope to build a statue in his
likeness that would be taller than the Statue of
Mandela's birthday is being marked by a
whirlwind of celebrations.
Former President Clinton is
scheduled to deliver the first Nelson Mandela lecture today in
his honor. This evening, about 1,600 guests will pay tribute
to Mandela at a banquet. The guest list has been kept secret,
but local media say it includes Barbra Streisand and Michael
Jackson, as well as several world leaders and
The Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg will
officially be opened Sunday with a road race.
South Africans view Mandela as far from ordinary.
stature harks to John F. Kennedy or Winston Churchill, but few
politicians in this more cynical era have achieved his level
of adulation, said Tom Lodge, head of the political science
department of the University of the
Mandela projects a mixture of heroism,
charisma, warmth and self-deprecating humor that appeals as
much to poor, black farmworkers as it does to wealthy, White
businessmen, Lodge said.
That rapport is no accident,
"Sometimes it isn't sufficiently appreciated
what a skilled performer Mandela has been throughout his
political career," Lodge said. "He's a very, very clever man."