- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

QUNU, South Africa | Some came in exquisitely beaded traditional skins, others wore T-shirts emblazoned with his name, and Nelson Mandela welcomed all to the festive tent outside his home Saturday for the formal celebration of the anti-apartheid icon’s 90th birthday.

Hundreds of guests stood and cheered, and a Xhosa choir sang “Here is our hope!” as Mr. Mandela arrived — walking in with his successor as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Mandela, wearing an intricately patterned shirt in shades of brown, stopped to greet a few of the 500 honored guests as he made his way to the head table.

Mr. Zuma called the gathering a celebration of “a life and legacy of a father, grandfather, comrade, warrior, soldier, nation builder and statesman.” Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda caught the festive mood with a tuneful solo of “Happy Birthday” followed by a teasing verse:

“How old are you? State secret!” Then the 84-year-old Mr. Kaunda jogged over to Mr. Mandela to shake his hand.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner had celebrated privately with his family in his home village in the country’s rural southeast on Friday, the day he turned 90. Saturday was a grand occasion at his homestead in Qunu, 600 miles south of Johannesburg, where as a boy he herded cattle in the hills.

The party tent was decorated with the blue and orange colors of Mr. Mandela’s Xhosa tribe and with his clan’s crest — a bee flanked by tree branches, symbolizing industry, community and strength.

George Bizos was among the fellow veterans of the struggle to transform South Africa from a white-supremacist pariah nation into a multiracial democracy who came to the party Saturday. He identified Mr. Mandela’s optimism as his most “sterling” quality.

“He always believed that there would be freedom around the corner,” said Mr. Bizos, a lawyer who defended Mr. Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders during the era of white rule.

Tributes from Mr. Mbeki and others and performances by choirs and dancers were planned under the tent. As the party started, herd boys beat drums outside, while an orchestra played inside.

“Clearly, today is a very special day for all of us in South Africa and around the world,” said Mac Maharaj, who served prison time with Mr. Mandela on Robben Island, and then served in Mr. Mandela’s Cabinet.

Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. He was released in 1990 to lead negotiations that ended decades of white rule, then was elected president in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

He completed his term in 1999 and did not run again, but has continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa. Age has slowed him in recent years, but many still are impressed by his stamina. Just last month he was the honored guest for a huge charity concert in London’s Hyde Park.

“For a man of 90, he’s in very good shape,” one of his doctors, Peter Friedland, said at the party Saturday.