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Press: Mandela turns 88 and is showerd with gifts by Perkal

"Johannesburg - Former president Nelson Mandela's staff presented him with a cake and sang Happy Birthday on Monday as gifts and tributes poured in from around the world on the eve of his 88th birthday.

It took Mandela several attempts to blow out all the candles on the large blue-and-white cake, decorated with strawberries, the highlight of a private party at his Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Laughing and applauding, some staff helped him finish the job.

Mandela thanked employees and volunteers for helping him celebrate 88 years.

""In my younger days, I never imagined that such an occasion would come,"" he told them, smiling broadly in footage provided by the SABC.

Photographs of his life and legacy

""This is a wonderful occasion. To be loved by people with whom you work is something very important.""

Mandela, leaning on a cane and supported by his wife, Graca Machel, then toured an exhibition of photographs of his life and legacy.

Mandela's July 18 birthday draws attention from around the world.

His gifts this year include cigars and rum from Cuban President Fidel Castro, and shoes from women in the Eastern Cape, said his spokesperson Zelda la Grange.

Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and Aids in Africa.

The African National Congress told him in a birthday tribute on Monday: ""We continue to draw inspiration and courage from your leadership.

""We seek always to emulate the humility, selflessness and service which you - like so many of our heroes and heroines - have embodied throughout your life of struggle.""

Mandela had a special message for children on Monday.

""Today, we want children who are educated, because if you have no education, you can never lead,"" he told them.

Plans private party at home

He also urged the wealthy to help educate poor children ""so that they can have the advantage of qualifying as leaders.""

Mandela plans to celebrate his birthday - and the anniversary of his marriage - privately with family at his home in Johannesburg.

Later in the week, he attends another party at the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

President Thabo Mbeki is scheduled to deliver the annual address in honour of Mandela's birthday on July 29.

A rainbow and a box of Wilson toffies - that is what actor Neil Sandilands would like to give former president Nelson Mandela for his 88th birthday on Tuesday.

He said: ""I've got a lot of respect for him and I pray that just good things will happen to him.

""If I could, I would like to give him a rainbow and a box full of sticky Wilson toffees.""

Popular actress Liz Meiring has a number of gifts in mind.

""First, I would like to give him new cables to replace those stolen from Nelson Mandela Bridge about two weeks ago.

""I also would like to give him a few new shirts in another style.

""I would like to give him a rejuvenating cure, so that we could have him with us for quite a while still.

Meanwhile, gifts have been arriving in a steady stream at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, since last week.

Boots from Manchester United

By late Monday afternoon, Madiba had received about 1 000 gifts.

A foundation official, Boniswa Nyaty, who accepts the hundreds of parcels and gifts, said they received a pair of red soccer boots from Manchester United on Monday afternoon.

Nyaty said: ""There's also a variety of paintings, enormous fruit baskets, chocolate and cakes.

""He receives several blankets every year and, this year, former politician Helen Suzman also gave him a blanket.

""He has received a variety of board games from children. We expect, however, that the most gifts will arrive on Tuesday.""

Favourite food for the feast

Katrien Smit reports that a feast of food, all Madiba's favourites, are being prepared for his birthday.

Zelda la Grange, his spokesperson for many years, says a feast of food, including some Western dishes, but definitely also traditional Xhosa delicacies, will be prepared for the birthday feast.

As is his custom, Madiba celebrates his birthday with just family as guests.

The Mandela family is getting bigger and bigger and La Grange says just Madiba's closest family - his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - now make up a group of about 50. The family will sing and help Madiba slice a big cake.

La Grange says Madiba is well.

""Just before his birthday, you can see he enjoys the festivities. He feels the love from people and that's good for him.""

She says he has the ""usual"" health problems for someone of his age, but his doctors also say he's in better shape than many of his peers.

""Madiba now needs to rest a lot and we don't begrudge him that,"" said La Grange.

Has a serene smile

Jan-Jan Joubert reports that Madiba's special message to Afrikaans-speaking South Africans is that they and blacks share the history of oppression and should be able to form a strong unity in South Africa.

Madiba said: ""If you want to know what's really going on in South Africa, you must read Afrikaans. This is what I told my fellow prisoners in prison and it remains true to this day.

Madiba looks happy. He wore a serene smile on Monday - in a way more peaceful than the wide grin to which one has become accustomed.

It seems as if acceptance has joined the friendliness and decency we all know.

He prefers to sit rather than stand behind the big wooden desk, because the old legs are giving him problems, but his cordiality remains timeless.

He considers the biggest tasks at hand are the elimination of poverty and improvement of education possibilities, especially among blacks, so that they can find good work and have a reasonable income to meet their needs for food, clothing and accommodation.

He thinks the biggest challenges facing the country are health, poverty, education and national unity. But Madiba thinks we're going in the right direction.

""When I was in prison, I asked if I could talk to the former president, PW Botha.

""We're not enemies any more, but at the time he told me I had to renounce violence, but I refused, because they (the apartheid government) had started the violence.

He's in his element

""The other thing he wanted was that I had to go and live in the Transkei, because he alleged that was where I came from.

""I made it clear that it was the place where I had been born, but I was from Johannesburg and that's where I wanted to live,"" and he gives that Madiba laugh from his belly.

He looks around his office in leafy Houghton and doesn't have to say much more - he's in his element in the town he chose; among people who love him, and he's been around for 88 years. He's content.

He can, in any case, now determine for himself from where he came and where he's going.

"

This article was published on Thursday 20 July, 2006.

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