JOHANNESBURG — After weeks battling critical illness, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an emblem of its struggle against apartheid, spent his 95th birthday in the hospital Thursday and authorities said his condition was “steadily improving.”
The assessment contrasted with weeks of concern among South Africans and across the globe that Mandela might not recover from a lung infection that forced him into the hospital for the fourth time in a year on June 8. Previously, authorities had described his condition as “critical but stable.”
Mandela’s birthday was also marked by Mandela Day, when schools across the land paid tribute to the former president at morning assemblies and many organizations asked supporters to volunteer 67 minutes of their time to mark his 67 years of public service.
In a statement, President Jacob Zuma wished Mandela a happy birthday Thursday and, using the former president’s clan name, said: “Madiba remains in hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving.”
“On behalf of 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 hospitalization with undying love and compassion. We also thank all for responding to the call to give Madiba the biggest birthday celebration ever this year.”
Mandela was hospitalized in June to be treated for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.
Little is known about the details of his medical condition. A court affidavit filed in June in a dispute within 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 have visited him more recently say Mandela is sometimes awake, smiling, communicating with his eyes and even trying to talk.
In an interview with Britain’s Sky News, a daughter, Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa, said Wednesday that 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 Mandela with a collage of family photographs as a birthday gift, she said.
Mandela-Motlhajwa is a daughter of Mandela and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who called his 95th birthday “a gift to the nation.”
“There are some prophets of doom who say the country will come to a standstill” when the former president dies, Reuters quoted Madikizela-Mandela as saying in a radio interview. But, she said, “the country will continue as it has always done. If anything, the country will solidify, come together and carry on.”
Since 2009, the United Nations has recognized July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day, urging people around the world to devote the same 67 minutes as South Africans to good works.
Lydia Polgreen reported from Johannesburg, and Alan Cowell from London.