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Mandela, 'loved by all,' turns 85


Adoring S. Africans help him celebrate

Ravi Nessman
Associated Press
Jul. 19, 2003 12:00 AM

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 Friday.

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 screens.

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.

Mandela, who won the nation's first all-race elections after the fall of apartheid in 1994, retired in 1999. But he is as popular as ever.

"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 Liberty.

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 royals.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg will officially be opened Sunday with a road race.

Many South Africans view Mandela as far from ordinary.

His 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 Witwatersrand.

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, he said.

"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."

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