July 18, 2008

Nelson’s 90th is Strictly South African Affair

By Basildon Peta

His birthday has been the party that much of the world wanted to attend. But, in the end, Nelson Mandela turns 90 today with only friends and family to mark the occasion, far from the frenzy of Hyde Park concerts, in his birthplace of Qunu, a village in the Eastern Cape.

The acclaim for the man sometimes mooted as the world's leading moral authority has been such that some in South Africa have been left feeling that their icon has been appropriated by global showbiz celebrities. As a result, the African National Congress has said it will give ordinary South Africans the chance to celebrate his life.

Although the Hyde Park 46664 concert featured performers such as Annie Lennox and Amy Winehouse and worked well, it irked some in the ANC who disliked what they saw as its elitist flavour. "We want to demystify this thing that Mandela is celebrated only in high places or in London," said the ANC's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe. He said that Nelson Mandela does not belong in the high places of Houghton [a wealthy Johannesburg suburb] and London, and that is why his 90th birthday should be celebrated by ordinary people. "The people and the society made Mandela, not London or Houghton," he said.

The ANC festivities on 2 August, to be held at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, will include performances from local artists paying tribute to Mr Mandela. But in almost every part of the sprawling country, events have been planned. On Robben Island, where Mr Mandela was jailed for 18 years, former inmates were gathering for a small event near his cell, recently repainted to mark the day. At Drakenstein Prison, to where he was moved after his term on Robben Island, and from which he walked free on 11 February 1990, a statue is due to be unveiled on 21 August.

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has already given her tribute, by delivering the annual Mandela Lecture. She attacked another former liberation struggle hero, Robert Mugabe, while praising the South African President who stepped down of his own accord. In the capital, Pretoria, a show called Making the Legacy has been opened to celebrate his life. And the central bank has also minted coins in his honour.

Yet, for some, all this is not enough. "I wish they had declared his birthday a national holiday," said Malvern Khumalo, a Johannesburg builder. "He is more deserving of that than the guys in Swaziland and Lesotho," a reference to the two poor neighbours of South Africa that celebrate their kings' birthdays as national holidays at huge expense to taxpayers and the Western donors who bankroll their budgets.

A rare hint of restraint was offered by a shop owner, Rosemary Tsetseng. While she will join in the celebrations, she warned against the "continued building" of a personality cult around a "man who is human like all of us".

And what of the man himself? According to his spokeswoman, Zelda le Grange, he would like nothing more than a bit of peace and quiet.

Originally published by By Basildon Peta in Johannesburg.

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