July 18, 2005

AIDS torch celebrates Mandela’s 87th birthday

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa celebrated Nelson
Mandela's 87th birthday on Monday, lighting a special torch in
his apartheid prison cell as part of a new nationwide drive to
raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

The torch was lit just after midnight on Robben Island, the
former apartheid prison off Cape Town where Mandela spent
almost two decades for seeking to end white rule and bring
democracy to the country.

Organizers say the torch, brought back to Cape Town in a
blaze of fireworks, will now be taken throughout South Africa
as part of Mandela's AIDS awareness campaign and people are
being encouraged to drop off birthday greetings at each of its
stops around the country.

Mandela had no public engagements on Monday, with aides
saying the Nobel Peace laureate planned to spend the day
quietly with friends and family at his ancestral home of Qunu
in the Eastern Cape province.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has nevertheless arranged a
series of events to mark his 87th birthday, including a lecture
by a fellow Nobel laureate, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari
Maathai, and a special rugby match next Saturday.

The focus for this year's celebrations has been Mandela's
political and moral legacy, with special emphasis on his public
support for the battle against HIV/AIDS, an epidemic which now
infects more than 5 million of South Africa's 47 million

The "46664" AIDS campaign, named after Mandela's one-time
prison number, has featured a number of rock concerts including
one Mandela attended earlier this year north of the Arctic
Circle in Norway.

"The former apartheid government thought they could reduce
prisoners to numbers and that the world would forget about
them. It didn't happen," the Mandela Foundation said in a

"If we care for those infected and affected with the
disease, it could prevent people from becoming part of
statistics and reduced to numbers," it added.

Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president
after landmark elections in 1994, stepped down in 1999 and
officially retired from public life last year -- although he
continues to keep a punishing schedule as he works for various
charitable causes.

South African political parties from across the spectrum
joined well-wishers sending Mandela birthday greetings on
Monday, with his African National Congress saluting its most
famous member as a continued source of hope for millions.

The opposition Democratic Alliance said Mandela was an
inspiration for those fighting for worthy causes, while the
umbrella Congress of South African Trade Unions said his
influence continued undiminished.