Nelson Mandela

A visitor uses his phone to take a photo of one of the posters on display at an exhibition celebrating Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. (Ben Curtis / Associated Press / July 17, 2013)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – For more than a month, South Africans have kept an anxious vigil as their much-loved former president Nelson Mandela lay in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital.

But as Mandela turned 95 on Thursday, there was reason to hope: He was making "remarkable progress," according to his daughter  Zindzi.

South Africans have prepared a wide range of special tributes to mark Mandela’s birthday.  A huge celebration of his life and legacy was expected, with songs in his name, a giant birthday card and artistic works. 

PHOTOS: Worldwide celebrations for Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday

Many South Africans planned to donate 67 minutes of their time to community service, one for each year that Mandela gave to serving his people.

Mandela has been hospitalized since June 8 with a recurring lung infection, a legacy of his 27 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s former white-minority rulers. A family affidavit submitted at a recent court hearing said he was on life support and described his demise as “impending.”

But earlier this week, Mandela was watching television with headphones on, his daughter said in an interview with British Sky News.

“I should think he will be going home any time soon," she said.

Although Mandela is still unable to speak, she said he was regaining strength and energy.

"He gave us a huge smile and raised his hand," she said. "He responds with his eyes and his hands."

Her comments echoed observations from old friends Denis Goldberg and Ahmed Kathrada, who last week said Mandela recognized them and responded with his eyes because he had a tube in his throat. It was unclear Thursday whether he remained on a respirator.

"It was an overwhelming feeling of sadness, and of course the unrealistic wish and prayer that he can be with us for longer and longer," Kathrada told the Associated Press.

The first indication that Mandela might leave the hospital came Saturday from his successor, former President Thabo Mbeki. Speaking at a lecture, Mbeki said that he believed Mandela’s doctors would soon discharge him, South Africa’s Eyewitness News reported.

Mandela's illness has prompted a massive outpouring of hope, goodwill and sadness. A tribute wall sprang up at the hospital, with thousands of letters and flowers. Families came to pray, read the letters, talk about him and have their picture taken.

Schoolchildren and choirs sang, people released doves and balloons, and preachers prayed for Mandela to be granted more time.

On July 4, Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, offered another sliver of hope, saying the former leader was "sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes he is in pain, but he is fine."

She said the prayers and good wishes from around the world had been heard.

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