NPR Story
12:35 pm
Thu July 18, 2013

South Africa Marks Nelson Mandela's Birthday

Millions of children across South Africa sang “Happy Birthday” to Nelson Mandela today as he turns 95.

People around the world are joining South Africans in celebrating his life.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson is among those volunteering 67 minutes in their communities, to honor the 67 years Mandela gave to the struggle against apartheid and creating a new South Africa.

In New York’s Times Square, South African artist Paul Blomkamp is showing his giant portrait of Mandela, which he says was inspired by the leaders great energy.

Mandela himself is in the hospital where he has been since June with a recurring lung ailment, but reports say that his health, which had been described as critical but stable, is improving.

His illness has intensified a bitter family struggle over Mandela’s legacy and inheritance.

Mandela helped create a post-apartheid South Africa, and he is still very much in South African minds, despite having left public life over a decade ago.

How are South Africans feeling about their country’s progress since the end of Apartheid, and what is South Africa’s role in the region today?

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Nelson Mandela turns 95 today, and people around the world are joining South Africans in celebrating his life. The United Nations has declared today Mandela Day with a call for citizens everywhere to take responsibility for making the world a better place. British entrepreneur Richard Branson is among those volunteering 67 minutes in their communities to honor the 67 years Mandela gave to the struggle against apartheid. In Times Square in New York, a South African artist is showing his giant portrait of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela himself remains in the hospital in South Africa where he has been since June with a lung infection. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Johannesburg, and he is with us now. Jason, what's the mood like there today?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's been actually quite festive, considering that Nelson Mandela is in hospital in critical condition. People were out in the streets sort of dancing and singing "Happy Birthday" this morning. At schools all across the country, people were singing "Happy Birthday" to him. Yeah, it's been actually quite upbeat, and sort of a lot of people have been taking this opportunity to really reflect on a very special person, not just in South Africa but in the world.

The Star Newspaper has a big two-page spread of 95 quotes to live by from Mandela, laying out his philosophy both as a freedom fighter and as a politician and as a man. So, it's been really a time to reflect on his legacy and think about, you know, this very special figure in South Africa's history.

HOBSON: And the people that are out there singing "Happy Birthday," are they of all races?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, they are. I went to a white - predominantly white school - it was a private girls' school - this morning, and they were singing in Xhosa, in Mandela's own native language. They were singing "Happy Birthday" to him. And then, you know, when I crossed the street and there was all these black kids from a much poorer neighborhood from the poor public schools, and they were out singing in English and dancing on the sidewalks, singing "Happy Birthday" and singing old anti-apartheid freedom songs. Yeah, so everybody has really been engaging in year's Mandela Day.

HOBSON: And as you say, sadly, he is still in the hospital in critical condition. What do we know about his condition because there have been some reports that it's improving a bit?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. There have been some reports that it's improving a bit. It is very limited, the amount of information that we get. But some of Mandela's family members who visited him just recently say that he's responsive, that he's been watching television, that he very much sort of communicates with his eyes even though he can't speak at the moment because of a breathing apparatus. But they're saying that he is very much improving.

HOBSON: And is there optimism on the streets that he's going to get better and get out of that hospital and go back home?

BEAUBIEN: Many people here sort of accept that this is a man who spent 27 years in prison, had a very hard life, suffered from tuberculosis. And he's now 95. And I've been struck by South Africans, by - many of them very much seem to be - having prayers for him. And it's not necessarily prayers that he will come out, but prayers just that he is well, that he's in good hands. And even if he passes away, people sort of accept that it's very much the end of his life.

HOBSON: Jason, let's talk about South Africa. It has been now 14 years since Nelson Mandela left office. How much of the country today is a result of him and what he did?

BEAUBIEN: A lot of it is. I think the stability that has been here in South Africa is really quite remarkable given the anger that was there towards the end of apartheid. And much of the optimism and, you know, the Rainbow Nation, you know, their flag is - they refer to it as the flag of the Rainbow Nation. The sense of we are all here together was really planted. That seed was driven home by Nelson Mandela.

HOBSON: So a renewed optimism, although we do hear still about a lot of problems in South Africa, about high levels of violent crime, about still a strong economic divide with whites still disproportionately wealthy compared to blacks.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. I mean, this country still has numerous problems. I mean, unemployment, officially, is about 40 percent. You know, it's probably even higher than that. It still has the worst, the largest HIV epidemic in the world. There is a lot of discontent when you talk to young people about how the equality that was talked about during the struggle hasn't sort of trickled down to them, particularly on an economic level.

And it isn't even so much a sense that the whites have all of the power anymore. There has been a big shift of wealth to a very elite black class and a black middle class. But there's still millions of people who are being left out of that. And the frustration among, you hear every time you walk through one of the townships, economics is going to be a big factor whether they can bridge that economic divide down the road. And it's going to be a big fight.

You got several labor unions at the moment, South African Airways. Some of their employees have been on strike. The gold miners are in negotiations at the moment. They're asking for 100 percent increase in wages. Gold producers are offering 5 or 6 percent. You're know, you're heading for a big fight in that sector.

So, yeah, there's - there are some major problems that still need to get worked out, and they're not going to get worked out tomorrow.

HOBSON: Finally, Jason, I mean, there have been questions about whether Mandela's death, when it happens, is going to cause violence or political chaos in South Africa. Is that still a concern?

BEAUBIEN: You know, I don't think that there's going to be violence or, you know, riots the day after he dies. But I do think that it's a legitimate concern. It's a legitimate question. And it's something that I have heard brought up from people here in South Africa. There is a large number of people from throughout the African continent who are living here. A lot of people from Zimbabwe, a lot of Nigerians, people from Ethiopia, Somalia and there's a lot resentment towards them from native South Africans who are unemployed, who feel that these other Africans are driving down wages, they're stealing jobs.

A group of Somalis, who I spoke with, basically said, we're concerned that the protection that Mandela always sort of extended to us by the way that he spoke about all of humanity deserving theses rights were worried that that shield is going to be lifted if he's no longer there. Mandela has been a steadying force in South Africa even when he's lying there in his hospital bed. The fact that he's there, that he has laid out this vision of a united, Democratic, peaceful country. Nobody wants to challenge that while he's still around. And potentially, some people might try to rock the boat once he's gone.

HOBSON: NPR's Jason Beaubien joining us from Johannesburg, South Africa on this 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela. Jason, thank you so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

HOBSON: And we'd love to hear from you. You can go to hereandnow.org. You can also go facebook.com/hereandnowradio to tell us about this or any other story you hear on this program. Up next, a financial columnist will join us to tell us why she is paying so much attention to Tyler Perry's TV shows. That's just ahead. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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