Nelson Mandela returned to his childhood village ahead of his 93rd birthday Monday as South Africa and the world prepared to honour the most celebrated living statesman on the planet.
For the third year, at the request of his charitable foundation, July 18 will be observed as Mandela Day, recognised by the United Nations as a global call to volunteer for good causes for 67 minutes — representing each year of Mandela’s life in active politics.
“It is hard to sum up Mandela’s achievements and contribution to the country’s struggle for freedom,” said Shadrack Gutto, of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa.
“A leader of Mandela’s calibre serves as a symbol of humility and selflessness,” said Gutto.
The ailing former president arrived at his childhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape on Thursday in a military medical aircraft.
His trip was done discreetly, the public and journalists were kept away.
It was unclear where Mandela would spend his birthday as his foundation refused to comment on his plans.
However he is expected to celebrate it with his family, which he has rarely left since a health scare in January when he was hospitalised for an acute respiratory infection.
He was last seen in public just before his last birthday, when he and his third wife Graca Machel made an appearance at the football World Cup final.
It’s a far cry from the fanfare that once greeted his birthday.
For his 90th, Mandela jetted off to London for a charity concert with the likes of Will Smith and Annie Lennox to raise money for his AIDS charity; hosted a speech in Johannesburg by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; and threw a party for hundreds of children at his home.
This year, 93 children from around the country are invited to his foundation on Monday, but they aren’t expected to meet the man most South Africans know as Madiba, his clan name.
All the nation’s 12.4 million school children will erupt in song in a special “Happy Birthday” rendition with an African twist, penned by a local composer.
“It hopes to mobilise the entire society to promote education, unity and social cohesion in honour of Madiba,” said basic education minister Angie Motshekga.
Companies, charities and celebrities have all announced plans for the day.
A group of bikers left Johannesburg at the beginning of the week to traverse the country doing voluntary work in poor communities. Their 2,200-kilometre (1,350-mile) trip ends Monday in Pretoria.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter and American reality show star Kimora Lee Simmons were among 67 famous people who inked their handprints to the Mandela Legacy Canvas, which will be auctioned in Cape Town this weekend to raise money for charity.
Schools and orphanages are opening their doors to volunteers who clean and paint, while blood banks are operating extra hours for an expected rush of donors.
As South Africa’s first black president, Mandela is revered for ushering in democracy and for his personal sacrifices in fighting the white-minority apartheid regime that jailed him for 27 years.
On his release in 1990, he led negotiations that paved the way to elections in 1994. He used his warmth, dignity and self-deprecating humour to help heal racial divisions and opened a process of reconciliation.
Those values can be in short supply among South Africa’s current leaders who seem embroiled in an endless series of scandals from corruption to hate speech, said political analyst Steven Friedman.
“The political climate is tense right now. Racial divisions are showing and space for national debate is needed,” said Friedman.
“Leaders these days use the government to dominate others. It is important that politicians and society don’t lose sight of Mandela’s vision for a united South Africa,” said Friedman.