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Birthday of a legend

23.07.2013 - Article

“On a diplomatic mission” in Pretoria, the Press Officer at the German Embassy joins a group of school children to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday.

“On a diplomatic mission” in Pretoria, Friedrich Schröder, Press Officer at the German Embassy and head of the German Information Centre in South Africa, joins children from Johannesburg’s East Bank High School to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday.

Pupils of East Bank High School singing in honor of Nelson Mandela
Pupils of East Bank High School singing in honor of Nelson Mandela© AA

“Critical, but stable.” That is how the South African Government is describing Nelson Mandela’s condition in its official statements. The global icon is being looked after in a private hospital in Pretoria, less than a kilometre from the Embassy as the crow flies. His life hanging in the balance, the thoughts of the whole country have been with their Madiba for weeks – as South Africans call him with reference to his traditional clan name. Very few public events these days do not start with an expression of best wishes for the health of South Africa’s first democratically elected President. He has even been feeling a little better.

On 18 July, the living legend that is Nelson Mandela turned 95. How do you celebrate such a birthday? With a TV extravaganza? With the kind of big parade that we know from other African countries? Or, given his critical condition, with restraint?

Mandela Day – and everyone mucks in

The United Nations passed the resolution establishing an annual Mandela Day in 2009. Each year sees the example of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate reach more and more people: from the start of his legal career in 1941 – he went on to open the country’s first black law firm – to his 90th birthday, when the idea of a commemorative day was first raised, Nelson Mandela had spent 67 years of his life striving for freedom, democracy and human rights.

South Africa celebrated its national father‑figure, its “Tata”, in exactly the way he would have wished: by working for the community. Practically everyone rolled their sleeves up on 18 July to spend 67 minutes doing something for a good cause in honour of Nelson Mandela International Day. This could mean setting up a soup kitchen in a township, giving blood, collecting clothes for the homeless, reading to residents in a retirement home or looking after HIV orphans – and everything underscored with plenty of singing and dancing. Others ran 67‑kilometre marathons or planted 67 trees; people’s creativity knew no bounds. Each annual Mandela Day has a slightly different theme. This year’s focused on nutrition, housing and education.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

Ambassador Horst Freitag at the opening of the new school library
Ambassador Horst Freitag at the opening of the new school library© AA

With Mandela’s quote in mind, the Embassy in Pretoria has chosen education as its theme this year. In Alexandra, which is one of Johannesburg’s poorest townships and was home for a time to Nelson Mandela, who calls it a “treasured place”, we donated new library books, photocopiers and computers with library software to two deprived schools. We did not simply hand over a cheque, however. Everyone did their bit, from the intern to the Ambassador, to tidy the new books onto the shelves and set up the equipment. Admittedly, it did not take precisely 67 minutes – but work in the community is not about counting the seconds after all. The Embassy was not working alone either. The local group of the Federal Foreign Office’s Family and Spouses’ Association had its own project, donating teaching materials to a primary school in Mamelodi, a township near Pretoria.

It was pleasing to see that, in spite of the great number of events being run at the same time, a good number of journalists heard the call and reported on our activities. The Embassy itself saw to the online reporting, including social media, as we do want to reach young people in particular.

To close with a word from the man himself, Mandela said from very early on that we should not leave it at 67 minutes a year but “Make every day a Mandela Day”. We all ought to follow his example – every day, in every corner of the world.

More reports from our "On a diplomatic mission" series

The German Embassy in South Africa

The German Information Centre South Africa

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