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South Africans cheer Mandela’s 95th birthday

  • Well-wishers carry a large banner of Nelson Mandela as they march up and down outside the gates of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

    Well-wishers carry a large banner of Nelson Mandela as they march up and down outside the gates of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

  • Children stand next to a birthday cake to mark former South African President Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday outside his home in Johannesburg, Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday with acts of charity on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

    Children stand next to a birthday cake to mark former South African President Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday outside his home in Johannesburg, Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday with acts of charity on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

  • Well-wishers carry a large banner of Nelson Mandela as they march up and down outside the gates of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
  • Children stand next to a birthday cake to mark former South African President Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday outside his home in Johannesburg, Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday with acts of charity on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving after fears that he was close to death during ongoing hospital treatment. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

South Africans of all races celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday yesterday, amid reports that the anti-apartheid icon’s health was “steadily improving” as he lay in a hospital bed battling a critical lung infection.

Throngs of South Africans gathered outside the green gates of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, singing “Happy Birthday,” dancing or blowing vuvuzelas, the long plastic horns that were ubiquitous during the World Cup soccer matches held in South Africa in 2010.

“We are all here as a nation to celebrate the great man’s birthday,” declared Constance Felix, 65, who made a six-hour journey by bus from Eastern Cape Province. “We are not down and out because he is sick. It shows the nation still has hope for him.”

In a statement, South African President Jacob Zuma said Mandela’s “doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving.” Zuma notably did not refer to Mandela’s condition as “critical but stable,” as the government previously has. Zuma also wished Mandela a “joyous 95th birthday,” referring to him as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.

“We are proud to call this international icon our own as South Africans and wish him good health,” the statement said. “We thank all our people for supporting Madiba throughout the hospitalization with undying love and compassion. We also thank all for responding to the call to give Madiba the biggest birthday celebration ever this year.”

Mandela was hospitalized June 8 for a recurring lung infection. His condition became critical, raising alarms that the former South African president was on his death bed. Over the past few days, though, the government and family members have described his condition as improved significantly, with some speculating that he may be discharged soon from the hospital and allowed to recuperate in his home in Johannesburg.

His daughter, Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa, told the British broadcaster Sky TV on the eve of Mandela’s birthday that he has made “dramatic progress” and was gaining “energy and strength.”

“I visited him yesterday, and he was watching television with headphones,” said Mandela-Motlhajwa. “He gave us a huge smile and raised his hand. . . . He responds with his eyes and his hands. . . . I should think he will be going home anytime soon.”

South Africans yesterday celebrated Mandela’s birthday in different ways. The morning headline from the Citizen newspaper proclaimed “Happy Birthday!” while the Sowetan, another local paper, simply said: “95.”

Since 2009, the United Nations has recognized his birthday as Nelson Mandela International Day and has urged people to pay tribute to him by volunteering 67 minutes toward a worthy cause to mark Mandela’s 67 years of public service.

Many South Africans took that call to heart yesterday, donating food to charities, volunteering in orphanages, picking up trash and making sandwiches for the poor. Zuma was scheduled to mark the birthday by overseeing donations of houses to impoverished white farmers in Pretoria. Labor activists in Cape Town were holding an event to urge people to donate food to the indigent. A group of young South African artists created a project of 95 posters, compiled from submissions from around the world, to commemorate Mandela.

Outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, the mood was jubilant. Marching bands played “Happy Birthday” as well as South Africa’s national anthem. School children dressed in the green and yellow colors of the ruling African National Congress party sang tributes to Mandela as their parents and teachers proudly watched. Others signed the hundreds of banners plastered on the wall of the hospital wishing Mandela a speedy recovery.

Around Pretoria, the government had plastered posters of Mandela, with uplifting slogans and quotes from the icon.

“Your life remains our inspiration,” read one poster.

Mercy Mokgoane, 39, noted that under the former apartheid regime’s segregationist laws, she wouldn’t have been allowed to stand in front of the hospital.

“Only our mothers were allowed into this area because they were the maids of the white people,” said Mokgoane. “The way we live now is because of Madiba.”

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