Schools across South Africa paid tribute to their former President on Mandela Day; appeal to devote 67 minutes

After weeks of battling a critical illness, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an emblem of its struggle against apartheid, spent his 95th birthday in a hospital on Thursday, according to authorities, who said his condition was steadily improving.

The assessment comes in the wake of weeks of global concern that Mr. Mandela might not recover from a lung infection that had forced him to be hospitalised, on June 8, for the fourth time this year. Previously, authorities had described his condition as critical but stable.

Thursday was also Mandela Day, when schools across South Africa paid tribute to the former president at morning assemblies. Many organisations called for people to volunteer 67 minutes of their time to mark Mr. Mandela’s 67 years of public service.

In a statement, President Jacob Zuma wished Mr. Mandela a happy birthday and said: “Madiba [Mr. Mandela’s clan name] remains in hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving.”

“On behalf of the government and all the people of South Africa, we wish Madiba a joyous 95th birthday,” the statement said. “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 hospitalisation with undying love and compassion. We also thank all for responding to the call to give Madiba the biggest birthday celebration ever this year.”

Details unclear

Little is known about the details of his medical condition. A court affidavit, filed in June in a dispute within Mr. Mandela’s family over where he might be buried, claimed he was in a permanent vegetative state, but both family and medical team members denied this. Family members and friends who had visited Mr. Mandela more recently say he was, at times, awake, smiling, communicating with his eyes and even trying to talk.

In an interview with Britain’s Sky News, Mr. Mandela’s daughter Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa said on Wednesday that Mr. Mandela was watching television and using headphones to hear the sound.

“You can see he is there in his eyes, the same energy and strength,” she said. The family planned to present Mr. Mandela with a collage of family photographs as a birthday gift, she said.

Ms. Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa was born to Mr. Mandela and his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who called his 95th birthday a gift to the nation.

Daughter clarifies

Contrary to reports that say the country would come to a standstill when the former president dies, Ms. Mandela-Motlhajwa said the country would continue as it had always done. If anything, the country would come closer together, she said.

Since 2009, the United Nations has recognised July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day, urging people around the world to devote the same 67 minutes as South Africans to good works.

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