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Nelson Mandela, South Africa's legendary leader, is 94 today

July 18, 2012 |  6:23 am

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's legendary leader, celebrates 94th birthday

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's beloved first black president, Nelson Mandela, is turning  94 years old on Wednesday in his home village of Qunu. The celebration, with his family, will include a birthday cake and his favorite dish of tripe with samp, or coarsely ground cornmeal.

Schoolchildren and celebrities sang "Happy Birthday Madiba," as South Africans affectionately call the former leader, using his clan name. Millions of South Africans donated 67 minutes of their time to public service, one minute for each of the years he dedicated his life to service.

Tributes poured in from around the world, while the Internet in South Africa lit up with birthday messages for Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime and emerged to become president in the country's first democratic elections in 1994.

Nearly all the top trending topics on Twitter in South Africa on Wednesday were Mandela-related, among them Happy Birthday Madiba, Mandela Story, Sing4Madiba, legend, Madiba Means, 67 Minutes and Qunu.

TIMELINE: The life of Nelson Mandela

Mandela retired from public life in 2004 and rarely appears in public. He spends most of his time in his rural home village of Qunu outside Mthatha in South Africa's Eastern Cape province.

With South Africa ever concerned about the increasingly frail health of the man people simply call "our icon," Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, reassured journalists Tuesday that he had recovered well from illness. (He was hospitalized earlier this year with an abdominal complaint. Last year rumors swept the country that he had died after he spent several days in a hospital with a respiratory infection.)

"Madiba has recovered very well and the only thing he complains about are his legs, which he says they don’t obey him," Machel said.

Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea visited Mandela at Qunu Tuesday. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, sent birthday wishes, paying tribute to Mandela's unbreakable will, unwavering integrity, and abiding humility.

"On behalf of the people of the United States, we would like to extend our heartfelt congratulations to Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his 94th birthday and the fourth annual Nelson Mandela International Day," the Obamas said in a statement.

"By any measure Nelson Mandela has changed the arc of history, transforming his country, continent, and the world," the statement said.

Mandela dedicated his life to freeing blacks from white oppression. The ruling African National Congress is often a little possessive of the Mandela legend. Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela recently sent a furious letter to the party accusing it of abusing the Mandela name. According to leaks of the letter she said the party "never had any interest in celebrating Tata's [Mandela's] birthday, except to gate crash on the family's arrangements". (The party has not responded to leaks of her attack.)

An article in the South African newspaper the Mail and Guardian on Wednesday said there was "lingering discomfort over the opportunistic way Mandela has been used to burnish the image of South Africa and the ANC."

However Mandela inspires not just the ANC and its supporters, but South Africans of all political persuasions, and people across the globe.

Spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, said Mandela was an inspiration to everyone in South Africa.

"He has lived an exemplary life and we want to wish him well and good health. Ultimately, we want to say: 'Thank you, Madiba.' Because every time his birthday comes around, it reminds us of who we can become as a nation and what type of leaders we can produce," Maimane said.

In 2009 the U.N. declared July 18 International Mandela Day.

TIMELINE: The life of Nelson Mandela

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-- Robyn Dixon

Photo: South African schoolchildren hold signs as they prepare to sing happy birthday to former South African President Nelson Mandela, whom they call Madiba, his clan name. Credit: Stephane De Sakutin / Getty Images

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