Mandela spent 27 years in prison during the struggle against apartheid [EPA]

The world will be buzzing this Saturday as people celebrate Nelson Mandela's birthday. He turns 91 and is possibly one of the most inspirational leaders of the late 20th century.
 
He struggled against the oppression, injustice and racism of South Africa's apartheid system spending 27 years in prison, including on the notorious Robben Island in Cape Town.

When the country held its first democratic election in 1994, Mandela became the first black president. While in office he worked tirelessly to heal a nation grappling with race issues.

Apartheid may have ended as a system of oppression for South Africa's black majority, but coexistence between the different races needed more work.

To this day, many South Africans credit Mandela for keeping the peace during those early years after 1994. Some say had he not been president then, the country could have descended into chaos.

Then Mandela stepped down in 1999 after his first term in office - something not usually seen in Africa - and retired from political life.

Legacy

Fifteen years later his legacy lives on - a legacy that has the power to do enormous good for Africa and the world, both now and in the future.

And that is the whole point of celebrating July 18 - Madiba's birthday.

Every human being across the globe is being encouraged to "be like Mandela" for 67 minutes of the day. The number 67 representing the years he spent fighting for freedom and justice in South Africa.

In a video message to South Africans broadcast earlier in the week, Mandela said: "It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it."

And all across South Africa people plan to do just that.

Some will visit children's homes and donate books, read to the children and talk to them about Mandela's life. Others will hand out food parcels and blankets.
 
Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s newly elected president, decided to commemorate Mandela's birthday in his first state of the nation address.

"We can best honour our icon, Madiba, through attempting in our own small ways to do what he would be proud of. Nothing would please him more than to see all South Africans, black and white, active in the service of humanity," he said.

"Madiba contributed his entire adult life to this country and its people. This is the least we can do to honour him and take forward his legacy."

Even Mandela, now frail and not often seen in public, will take part, spending his 67 minutes with the elderly in Johannesburg.

New York concert

In New York, Carla Bruni-Sarokzy, wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, will lead a glittering line-up of stars at a concert at Radio City Music Hall in Madison Square Garden.

The event will also feature Stevie Wonder and soul queen Aretha Franklin among others.

The concert aims to raise funds for Campaign 46664, named after Mandela's former prisoner number.

Back in Cape Town, away from the glitz and glamour of the New York celebrations, Eleanor Bester fusses over her children - 14 boys and girls who have been abandoned, abused or neglected by their parents live in the home she calls Heaven's Nest.

It's dinner time - and making some of them finish their plate of lasagna is proving difficult.

The children seem so at ease with her. Some had no idea what it felt like to be loved before they came to her home.

Eleanor describes one child's ordeal.

"Four siblings were locked up in a shack for weeks with no food or water by their parents. Finally they were rescued by social workers," she says.

"When they first came to our home they used to roll themselves up in a blanket from head to toe, curling up tightly while they were sleeping in the corner of the room.

"Eventually the poor children learnt there were no rats coming to eat them and they were loved and safe."

Helping the needy

Eleanor is one of many remarkable people in South Africa who have given their lives to helping those in need.

She has been running the Heaven's Nest for the last five years and although it can take no more than a dozen children at a time, it has been home for more than 200 children over that time.

Celebrating Mandela day for Eleanor, on 18 July, is one way of encouraging the world to do good, but she wants people to do more that the suggested 67 minutes.

"Sixty-seven minutes in a year is never going to be enough," she says.

"A place like Heaven’s Nest is totally dependent on donations. If people tell themselves all they will do is 67 minutes, then places like this home which need constant help and donations will not survive."

Source: Al Jazeera