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UN chief calls for volunteer work as tribute to Mandela

Published on 17/07/2011

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called on people around the world to carry out volunteer work to mark the 93rd birthday Monday of South Africa's iconic elder statesman Nelson Mandela.

In schools across the country, South Africa’s 12.4 million children will on Monday sing a special version of “Happy Birthday”, written by a local composer, for the former president and anti-apartheid hero.

But UN officials and the Nelson Mandela Foundation also want people to sign up for 67 minutes of voluntary work — a minute for every year he devoted himself to the political struggle.

“Together, the best way we can thank Nelson Mandela for his work is by taking action for others and inspiring change,” said Ban in a statement.

His birthday, July 18, will for the third year running be observed as Mandela Day, which the United Nations has a recognised as a day when people are called to give something back to their community.

Companies, charities and celebrities have all announced plans for the day.

A group of bikers left Johannesburg at the beginning of the week to cross the country doing voluntary work in poor communities. Their 2,200-kilometre (1,350-mile) trip ends Monday in Pretoria.

Schools and orphanages are opening their doors to volunteers to clean and paint, while blood banks are operating extra hours for an anticipated rush of donors.

And Mandela, who has already been showered with international awards, not the least of which is the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, received further honours in the run-up to his birthday.

Mayor of Capetown Patricia de Lille named a main road through the city centre Nelson Mandela Boulevard Friday and announced plans for a permanent exhibition in his honour at the city’s old town hall.

That was where Mandela gave his first, historic speech in 1990, after his release following 27 years in South African jails during the apartheid era of white minority rule.

In a separate video message, Ban set out the different ways people could honour Mandela’s work.

“Tutor a child. Feed someone less fortunate. Care for your environment. Volunteer at a hospital or community centre. Be a part of a global movement to make the world a better place,” he said.

“Together, we can help people achieve the dignity and liberty that are their birthright. That is the best way we can honour Nelson Mandela.”

It was unclear where Mandela would spend his birthday and his foundation refused to give out any details. But he is expected to celebrate it with his family.

He has rarely left their side since a health scare in January when he was hospitalised for an acute respiratory infection.

On Thursday, the ailing former president arrived at his childhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape in a military medical aircraft. But it was a private trip and the press and public were kept away.

Mandela 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.

As South Africa’s first black president, Mandela is revered for having ushered in democracy and for his personal sacrifices in fighting the apartheid regime.

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.