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Mandela, at 87, emphasizes message over man

July 17, 2005

By Andrew Quinn

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s Nelson Mandela
turns 87 on Monday, an increasingly fragile icon whose moral
message nevertheless grows louder with each passing year.

Unlike earlier birthdays, which saw the Nobel laureate
party with film stars, royalty and adoring children, this
anniversary will spotlight Mandela’s political legacy rather
than his celebrity allure, officials say.

Nelson Mandela Foundation officials and associates say the
focus is firmly on ensuring Mandela’s lessons of human respect
and dignity live long beyond the man himself.

“The greatest danger is that his legacy will be understood
in purely mechanical or political terms, and stripped of its
humaneness and humanity,” said Mac Maharaj, a former transport
minister who spent 12 years as a political prisoner with
Mandela in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison.

“Mandela has his strengths and weaknesses just like all of
us, but we need to understand his ability to control himself,
to see what needs to be done, and to do it.”

Aides acknowledge Mandela — the anti-apartheid hero who in
1994 became South Africa’s first black president — has slowed
down considerably since announcing his official retirement from
public life early last year.

He appears in public gripping a cane or the arm of an
assistant, and spends long periods at home with his family
including his third wife Graca Machel, the widow of
Mozambique’s founding President Samora Machel.

“I think he’s trying to relax, he’s trying to spend more
time with Mrs Machel,” said John Samuel, the chief executive of
the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “He spends more time just taking
it easy.”

But the man who led South Africa from white domination to
multi-racial democracy remains a giant in the public
imagination who can still rally tens of thousands to support
his messages of fighting HIV/AIDS and poverty.

Known by his clan name “Madiba” by his grateful countrymen,
Mandela traveled to the Arctic Circle this year to support the
battle against AIDS, hosting a Norwegian rock concert as part
of his own “46664″ campaign against the epidemic named after
his former apartheid prison number.

He has also spoken out forcefully about the U.S. war on
Iraq and global poverty — keeping his message of justice and
reconciliation in the headlines.

PERSONAL AIDS TRAGEDY

Associates say Mandela remains in good health for his age,
but this past year has nevertheless proved challenging in both
Mandela’s private and public lives.

He announced in January that his eldest son Makgatho had
died from HIV/AIDS at the age of 54, using his personal tragedy
to once again exhort South Africans to confront an epidemic
which infects an estimated 5 million of their countrymen, the
highest toll in the world.

And his public image has taken a rare knock in recent
months amid a legal battle over rights to the use of the
Mandela name, which local media have depicted as an unseemly
struggle over money among some of his family and close
associates.

For most South Africans, however, Mandela remains above
reproach — an increasingly mythologies figure who embodies
both the country’s difficult past and hopes for the future.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation this year will mark his
birthday with a lecture on Tuesday by Kenyan environmentalist
Wangari Maathai, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as
the release of new comic books designed to bring Mandela’s
message to the younger generation.

“There is a legacy that we need to wrap our minds and our
thinking around,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior member of the
ruling African National Congress.

“Many people in this country are beginning to deal with
that.”




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