PRETORIA, South Africa -- The singing washed like waves over the crowd gathered Thursday, Mandela Day, to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday outside the Pretoria hospital where he is being treated.
Wave after musical wave rang out, as choirs, political groups, schoolchildren and onlookers arrived one after another, dancing, gyrating and laughing, each with their own loud musical tribute to the man they see as the one who brought them freedom.
And it wouldn’t have been South Africa without the deafening vuvuzelas, blown at full blast, to wish Mandela back home.
Crowds thronged the wall of tribute outside the hospital, which sprang up spontaneously soon after Mandela was admitted with a lung infection on June 8. Since then, the heaps of flowers, artwork, posters and written tributes have spread along the wall and spilled down a nearby hill.
Hopes rose Wednesday evening when Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela, told British television that Mandela’s health had improved dramatically and that he might return home “any time soon.”
Mandela’s family was planning to gather to celebrate his birthday inside the hospital.
South African President Jacob Zuma visited the anti-apartheid hero in the hospital Thursday morning. Emerging from the hospital parking lot at one point, he stood, looking grave, hand on heart, in front of an honor guard while a brass band played South Africa’s national anthem.
The crowd sang a deafening “Happy Birthday” to the strains of the brass band, in honor of Mandela.
Zuma released a statement confirming that Mandela’s health continued to improve. South Africans were relieved to note that the statement, for the first time since Mandela’ admission, no longer used the word “critical” to describe the elder statesman’s health.
“Madiba remains in hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving,” Zuma said in the statement.
“On behalf of government and all the people of South Africa, we wish Madiba a joyous 95th birthday. We are proud to call this international icon our own as South Africans and wish him good health.
“We thank all our people for supporting Madiba throughout the hospitalization with undying love and compassion. We also thank all for responding to the call to give Madiba the biggest birthday celebration ever this year. Happy 95th Birthday Tata Madiba!” he said, using the affectionate name South Africans use for Mandela. (Madiba is Mandela’s clan name and Tata means father.)
South African newspapers marked the day with banner headlines. The Sowetan ran a huge 95, in front of a collage of Mandela’s photographs. The Citizen’s front page headline was simply “Happy Birthday!”
Thursday was also Mandela’s wedding anniversary. He married his third wife, Graca Machel, on his 80th birthday. She has been at his side throughout his health crisis, the latest in a series of lung infections.
Around the nation, South Africans contributed 67 minutes of community service to honor Mandela’s 67 years of public service. Members of the Mandela family visited schools and hospitals. Other South Africans distributed food to the homeless, picked up rubbish, cycled to collect money for charity, cleaned hospitals or did work in homes for the elderly, disabled or orphans.
Grace Shongoane, 23, a receptionist, dropped in to pay tribute to Mandela at the hospital, but planned to go to Lesedi orphanage in Mamelodi township, east of Pretoria.
“I want to go to them and to be with them for the day just to educate them about what Mandela has done for the country,” she said. “As a man, he’s got a very good heart because he thought of us when he was fighting for freedom. He thought of us.”
Her joy that Mandela had reached his 95th birthday -- after weeks when South Africans feared he might die -- was tempered by sadness that he was not at home to celebrate.
Timothy Sepeng, 50, drove a group of children to the hospital to pay tribute.
“I came today to wish our President Tata a speedy recovery,” he said, referring to Mandela. “He’s very much important to me because he has made me what I am today. I’m free because of him. I’m free. And I’ve got the freedom to do anything I like.”