SOWETO, South Africa -- In this sprawling Johannesburg suburb, a crowd lined up to write birthday greetings on a huge poster outside the modest house that Nelson Mandela once called home, part of a national outpouring for the anti-apartheid hero who turned 95 on Thursday.
Posters of Mandela, who celebrated his birthday in a Pretoria hospital, decorated nearly every lamp post in Soweto, which was a product of the rigid segregation policies of South Africa’s former white rulers. Traders did swift business selling shirts and paintings emblazoned with Mandela’s image to tourists.
Vilakazi Street is famous because two Nobel Laureates lived here in decades past: Mandela and former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
For some longtime residents, Mandela’s birthday was a chance to remember and give thanks.
“Thank you for being my father,” Nthabiseng Moloi, a 41-year-old unemployed mother of eight wrote on the poster.
She was drawn to Vilakazi Street, she said, because she wanted to feel Mandela’s spirit.
“Because it’s Mandela’s birthday, I just felt like coming here to remember him once more,” she said. “Just to feel his spirit in a traditional way.
”You know, a lot of things happened around here,” she said, looking around, shivering slightly. “It was a very long journey. I remember when I was young, when we struggled [against apartheid], how it hurt to hear that somebody you knew was shot, how my uncle was arrested for being one of the activists.”
Remembering it all, she had a strong sense of Mandela’s presence.
“I feel it,” she said. “He means life. He brought us so much.”
A chilly winter wind blew in from the valley, and life carried on as usual. A man went from house to house, toting brooms on his shoulder. Boys kicked a soccer ball on a street corner. Women with babies on their backs and bundles on their heads toiled up a hill. Unemployed people gathered in clusters, while a group of homeless squatters huddled under blankets in the sun.