JOHANNESBURG – 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.
"Madiba remains in hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving," said a statement from President Jacob Zuma, referring to Mandela by his popular clan name.
"We are proud to call this international icon our own as South Africans and wish him good health," Zuma said in the statement. He thanked South Africans for supporting Mandela during his hospitalization with "undying love and compassion" and responding to a call to give the beloved figure "the biggest birthday celebration ever this year."
Mandela was taken to a hospital on June 8 for treatment for a recurring lung infection. In previous announcements, the government said he was in critical but stable condition. Court documents filed by Mandela's family earlier this month had said Mandela was on life support and near death.
Mandela is making "remarkable progress," said one of his daughters, Zindzi, on Thursday, after tense weeks in which some South Africans talked about the possibility that Mandela was on the verge of dying.
"We look forward to having him back at home soon," the South African Press Association quoted Zindzi Mandela as saying during the government rollout of a digital ID card system in Pretoria, the South African capital. She was handed a replica of Mandela's new ID card during the ceremony.
Thursday also marked the 15th wedding anniversary of Mandela and Graca Machel, the former First Lady of Mozambique who has spent much of the time at her husband's side during his illness.
Schools around South Africa honored the anti-apartheid leader in special assemblies, and many people volunteered 67 minutes for charitable activities to match what organizers said were the 67 years of public service by Mandela, leader of the fight against white minority rule. Activities were also planned at the United Nations headquarters in New York City and other parts of the world.
"We don't only recognize him on this day. We put smiles on other people's faces, we donate to other people less fortunate," Thato Williams, a 13-year-old student, said during an assembly in Mandela's honor at Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg. Some 700 students there sang "Happy Birthday" in a hall filled with posters created to honor Mandela's contributions to peace and education.
"He's a man that ended the life of apartheid and he's a man of peace that everyone can look up to," said Ashley Kunutu, a 12-year-old pupil.
President Jacob Zuma opened low-cost housing for poor black and white families in the Pretoria area. South Africa is struggling with high unemployment, labor unrest, service delivery shortcomings and other social challenges that have dampened the expectations of a better life for black South Africans after the end of apartheid two decades ago.
Elsewhere in South Africa, social workers, military commanders and others joined in planting trees, painting hospices, and donating food, blankets and other basic necessities in poor areas. Doctors also administered eye tests, inoculations and other medical treatments to the needy.
Visiting Pretoria, European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso packed food parcels at a charity event. Van Rompuy said his two sons were fans of Mandela, whom he described as "the brightest sun of South Africa."
The U.N has declared July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day as a way of recognizing the Nobel Peace Prize winner's contribution to reconciliation. A procession was held in India to honor Mandela. In Washington, U.S. congressional leaders planned a ceremony later Thursday.
Mandela was jailed for 27 years under apartheid and led a difficult transition from apartheid to democracy, becoming president in all-race elections in 1994. He served one five-year term, evolving into a global statesman and pursuing charitable causes after that. He retired from public life years ago.
In other activities marking Mandela's birthday, English Premier League football team Manchester City was scheduled to play South Africa's AmaZulu team at Durban's World Cup stadium later Thursday. The game is the second of two pre-season matches in South Africa for Manchester City in the Nelson Mandela Football Invitational.
"South Africa is a better place today than it was in 1994 and this is because of the contribution made by Madiba and his collective," the ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, said in a statement.
The ANC was the leading liberation movement during apartheid, and has dominated politics since the end of white rule. However, it has come under increasing criticism because of corruption scandals and frustration over poverty and other problems.
In recent months, the ANC and opposition groups have sought to emphasize their connections to Mandela's legacy in the fight for democracy, leading to accusations of political opportunism on both sides.
F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid era, said in a statement that Mandela's birthday "should be a time for quiet and respectful contemplation -- and not for unseemly squabbling over the ownership of Mr Mandela's heritage."
He continued: "Throughout his life he has been a loyal and stalwart member of the ANC -- but I believe that through his example and through his unwavering commitment to national reconciliation -- all South Africans, regardless of their race or political affiliation, can now proudly call him their own."
De Klerk shared the Nobel prize with Mandela in 1993 because he effectively negotiated his own government out of power, working on a political transition with Mandela that allayed fears of all-out racial conflict.
Mandela's former wife said she wanted to reassure South Africans who fear the eventual death of Mandela, a unifying figure, would open the way to unrest.
"There are sometimes prophets of doom who say the country will come to a standstill," said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, herself a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid movement, in an interview with South Africa's Radio 702.
However, she said: "The country will solidify, come together and carry on."