For the U.S. Mission to South Africa, Mandela Day began at 8:00 a.m. on the chancery lawn with a resounding chorus of Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela, who turned 94 on Wednesday.
Like no other world leader alive today, the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon is revered and adored by his fellow citizens, and the anniversary of his birth date inspires countless tributes at home and from abroad.
“By any measure, Nelson Mandela has changed the arc of history, transforming his country, continent, and the world,” said President and Michelle Obama in a statement of congratulations.
Hoping to set a record for the most people singing Happy Birthday in unison, several South African institutions, including the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Department of Basic Education, issued an early call to well-wishers to sing the song at exactly 8:00 a.m. Approximately 12 million schoolchildren joined in the singing.
The great man celebrated the day privately and quietly, with family in his tribal village of Qunu, while millions of South Africans honored him by engaging in community service — 67 minutes for the 67 years that Madiba, as he is affectionately known, spent active in politics.
Ambassador Donald Gips and his family joined more than 150 U.S. and South African staff in heading out to disadvantaged communities, where they engaged in a range of projects, from painting and picking up litter to playing with children. Although participation is voluntary at the Mission, American officers relish the opportunity to join their host country in paying tribute to the living legend, who for Americans, would be like having George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., in one individual.
At a primary school in the Mamelodi Township outside Pretoria, Mission staff painted the entrance of the school library and stocked the library with books. Elizabeth Gips, the Ambassador’s wife, read President Obama’s book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, to a group of young students, signing the book and presenting it to the school librarian.
In Soweto, more than 40 staff from the embassy and Johannesburg consulate pitched in to clean up school grounds and paint a fence surrounding one primary school. South African broadcaster, Radio 702, also brought volunteers and interviewed Mission staff, while Ronald McDonald showed up to distribute Happy Meals to the children.
In the coastal city of Durban, staff created a garden at a local secondary school, while in Cape Town, a consulate crew headed to the poverty-stricken Lavender Hill neighborhood, where they worked alongside a local community group to collect plastic bottles for recycling, pick up trash, and assemble donated furniture.