July 18, 2013

Mandela 'steadily improving' on 95th birthday

He is making 'remarkable progress' after tense weeks in which some South Africans talked about the possibility that he was on the verge of dying.

By Christopher Torchia / The Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment.

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A portrait representing former South African President Nelson Mandela is displayed on the windows of a building as lights inside the building reflect in downtown Cape Town, South Africa on Thursday.

AP

"Madiba remains in hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving," said a statement from President Jacob Zuma, referring to Mandela by his popular clan name.

"We are proud to call this international icon our own as South Africans and wish him good health," Zuma said in the statement. He thanked South Africans for supporting Mandela during his hospitalization with "undying love and compassion" and responding to a call to give the beloved figure "the biggest birthday celebration ever this year."

Mandela was taken to a hospital on June 8 for treatment for a recurring lung infection. In previous announcements, the government said he was in critical but stable condition. Court documents filed by Mandela's family earlier this month had said Mandela was on life support and near death.

Mandela is making "remarkable progress," said one of his daughters, Zindzi, on Thursday, after tense weeks in which some South Africans talked about the possibility that Mandela was on the verge of dying.

"We look forward to having him back at home soon," the South African Press Association quoted Zindzi Mandela as saying during the government rollout of a digital ID card system in Pretoria, the South African capital. She was handed a replica of Mandela's new ID card during the ceremony.

Thursday also marked the 15th wedding anniversary of Mandela and Graca Machel, the former First Lady of Mozambique who has spent much of the time at her husband's side during his illness.

Schools around South Africa honored the anti-apartheid leader in special assemblies, and many people volunteered 67 minutes for charitable activities to match what organizers said were the 67 years of public service by Mandela, leader of the fight against white minority rule. Activities were also planned at the United Nations headquarters in New York City and other parts of the world.

"We don't only recognize him on this day. We put smiles on other people's faces, we donate to other people less fortunate," Thato Williams, a 13-year-old student, said during an assembly in Mandela's honor at Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg. Some 700 students there sang "Happy Birthday" in a hall filled with posters created to honor Mandela's contributions to peace and education.

"He's a man that ended the life of apartheid and he's a man of peace that everyone can look up to," said Ashley Kunutu, a 12-year-old pupil.

President Jacob Zuma opened low-cost housing for poor black and white families in the Pretoria area. South Africa is struggling with high unemployment, labor unrest, service delivery shortcomings and other social challenges that have dampened the expectations of a better life for black South Africans after the end of apartheid two decades ago.

Elsewhere in South Africa, social workers, military commanders and others joined in planting trees, painting hospices, and donating food, blankets and other basic necessities in poor areas. Doctors also administered eye tests, inoculations and other medical treatments to the needy.

Visiting Pretoria, European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso packed food parcels at a charity event. Van Rompuy said his two sons were fans of Mandela, whom he described as "the brightest sun of South Africa."

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