JOHANNESBURG — Two by two, the children marched into the assembly hall at Piet van Vuuren Primary School in the working-class neighborhood of Brixton, their white, black, and brown faces a tribute to the man they came to praise.
“Happy Birthday, Tata Madiba,” they pealed, voices in unison, using the clan name for Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s ailing first black president. “We love you, we do!”
Before 1994, when Mandela was elected president, this school was reserved for white children under the harsh system of segregation known as apartheid. Now, the school is the picture of the Rainbow Nation Mandela strove to create.
“If it weren’t for Tata Madiba, I wouldn’t be in this school,” said Luzuho Mdizu, 12, a seventh-grader and the top male student. “He is my hero.”
Across the country, South Africans spent 67 minutes on Mandela’s 95th birthday helping others as a tribute to Mandela’s 67 years in public service.
After weeks battling critical illness, authorities said his condition was “steadily improving.”
The upbeat assessment contrasted with the concern among South Africans and those around the world that Mandela might not recover from a lung infection that forced him into the hospital on June 8 for the fourth time in a year. Previously, authorities had described his condition as critical but stable.
President Jacob Zuma wished Mandela a happy birthday and said that Madiba remained in the “hospital in Pretoria but his doctors have confirmed that his health is steadily improving.”
One of Mandela’s daughters, Zindzi Mandela-Motlhajwa, said Wednesday that Mandela was watching television and using headphones.
“You can see he is there in his eyes, the same energy and strength,” she said.
Little is known about his medical condition. A court affidavit filed in a dispute over where he might be buried said he was in a vegetative state, but family and medical team members have denied this.
On Thursday, hundreds gathered at the Pretoria hospital where Mandela has been treated for the past 40 days.
Desmond Tutu, the retired archbishop of Cape Town, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and icon of the struggle against apartheid, painted the walls of a school in a shantytown.
Mandela-Motlhajwa, a daughter of Mandela, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, called his birthday “a gift to the nation.”
“There are some prophets of doom who say the country will come to a standstill” when he dies, she told a local radio station. But, she said, “the country will continue as it has always done. If anything, the country will solidify, come together, and carry on.”