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Turning 80, Mandela Gives S. Africa Reason to Rejoice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Nelson Mandela has an uncanny knack for showing up at the right place at the right time, sometimes settling the stickiest situations just by being there.

True believers might even suggest that the South African head of state had something to do with the auspicious timing of his 80th birthday, which he is scheduled to begin celebrating today with 1,400 foster children and a 300-pound vanilla sponge cake on a rugby field at Kruger National Park.

The weeklong party promises to be the biggest bash since the presidential inauguration four years ago, with Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Nina Simone among those lining up to sing birthday greetings to the soon-to-be octogenarian.

The hoopla isn’t coming a moment too soon for many South Africans.

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“We need any bit of good news in this country that we can get,” said Rob Bradbury of Pioneer Food Group, the Cape Town company that is baking Mandela’s cake, which will be frosted with 30 pounds of icing. “It is even more important because it is going to be his last birthday as president.”

The South African currency, the rand, is under unprecedented attack by international currency speculators, two dozen people have been killed this month in stepped-up political violence in KwaZulu-Natal province, and the ruling African National Congress is squabbling in public with its alliance partners and the president’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Enter feel-good Mandela--again right on time.

“He is a hero,” said Suzanne Weil of 80th Birthday Promotions Co., a private firm coordinating the festivities that will both honor Mandela and raise money for charities. “I adore him, and I, for one, like to be happy all of the time.”

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Mandela has said he will spend his actual birthday Saturday in the privacy of his home here with his family and Graca Machel, widow of the late president of Mozambique and South Africa’s unofficial first lady. The only buzz hotter these days than Mandela-mania is Mandela-Machel-mania, with some gossip columnists even suggesting that a birthday-wedding extravaganza may be secretly in the works.

The presidential office ignores such speculation. But then, those envisioning Mandela’s nuptials are only a fraction of the resurgent fascination with the leader known to most South Africans as Madiba, the name of his Xhosa clan.

“We all need to mourn the terrible things that are happening in this country, but we also need to celebrate the wonderful things,” said Jeremy Ractliffe of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which is hosting today’s bash at Kruger park.

On Saturday night, about 2,000 gays and lesbians in Cape Town are expected to attend an all-night “Mad About the Man” party, whose tickets depict an Andy Warhol-style image of Mandela and with a dress code listed as “Magnificent, majestic, Madiba, magic, mmmm. . . !”

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The official committee has criticized this event as undignified, but its organizers, Mother City Queer Projects, say the party is meant to honor Mandela for “including queers in his rainbow nation.” The organization is grateful for a clause in the post-apartheid South African Constitution that recognizes the rights of gays and lesbians.

Mandela himself wasn’t invited to this bash--"Seeing how his schedule is and all, we wouldn’t even begin to think of it,” Vorster said. But other well-wishers have been less reticent about demanding Mandela’s direct attention.

Thousands of people from around the world have been sending him cards and e-mail. The South African postal service is stamping mail with “Happy Birthday Madiba” wishes, while the official Internet site is to open today at https://mandela80.iafrica.com.

A birthday page already posted by the ANC at https://messages.to/mandela includes greetings from 52 countries--from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Taiwo Aladefa, a Nigerian living in North Hollywood.

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For South Africans, the party will continue next week, when local and international musicians--including Chaka Khan, James Ingram and LL Cool J--are to give concerts. For about 2,000 invited guests, a birthday banquet considered the social event of the year will be held Sunday at a private estate outside Johannesburg. Coveted seats at the event are going for more than $1,300, with proceeds benefiting the Nelson Mandela Millennium Fund.

Organizers say other fund-raisers are planned throughout the coming year. “Nelson Mandela has donated his 80th birthday to the country,” said Weil. “We are excited about honoring this man.”


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