JOHANNESBURG — Hospital visitors say Nelson Mandela smiled and nodded Thursday — his 95th birthday — and South Africans celebrated upbeat reports about the former president's health after weeks of worrying that he was on the verge of death.
Children sang "Happy Birthday" at school assemblies nationwide, and many honored the man known as "the father of the nation" by performing acts of charity for 67 minutes, symbolizing Mandela's 67 years of public service. World leaders praised the anti-apartheid leader's life of sacrifice and vision.
Outside the Pretoria hospital where Mandela was admitted for a recurring lung infection, well-wishers paid tribute to him and some received slices of a large birthday cake doled out from inside the compound.
"We don't only recognize him on this day. We put smiles on other people's faces, we donate to other people less fortunate," said Thato Williams, a 13-year-old student at Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg, where 700 students gathered in a hall filled with posters created to honor Mandela's contributions to peace and education.
Mandela remains very fragile, and many details of his medical condition have not been divulged or are tightly controlled by his family and President Jacob Zuma. The news that his health had improved was another dramatic turn in the life of a man who became a global figure of sacrifice and reconciliation during the fight against white minority rule in South Africa.
"When I visited him today, I found him really stable, and I was able to say, 'Happy Birthday,' and he was able to smile," Zuma said, according to the South African Press Association. His office had recently said Mandela's condition was critical but stable, but a statement Thursday said he was steadily improving.
Several months ago, Zuma gave an overly optimistic health assessment, but his remarks Thursday were matched by comments from some members of Mandela's family.
Mandela is making "remarkable progress," said one of his daughters, Zindzi, after tense weeks.
Granddaughter Tukwini Mandela said the day was "bittersweet" for the family.
"Obviously we're really grateful for people sending us good wishes and being generally supportive, but, you know, my grandfather is not well, he's in hospital," she added. "We would have preferred him to actually celebrate this day with us out of the hospital, but we are where we are, and we're just keeping our heads up and we're being strong."
Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who also visited Mandela, described him as "smiling and alert."
"He opens his eyes and nods, as if to say: 'I'm here with you and appreciate what you're doing,'" she said.
Hospitalized since June 8, Mandela's outlook had seemed increasingly grim until his reported turnaround in recent days. Court documents filed by Mandela's family earlier this month had said Mandela was on life support.
Another Mandela granddaughter, Ndileka Mandela, poured soup for poor children at a charity event and said her family had been unsure about whether her grandfather would live to see his birthday.
"But because of the fighter that he is, he was able to fight a repressive system, and he was able, through God and everybody's prayers, to make it today," she said.
Thursday also marked the 15th wedding anniversary of Mandela and Graca Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique who has spent much of the time at her husband's side during his illness.
As part of his acts of charity, Zuma opened low-cost housing for poor black and white families in the Pretoria area. South Africa is struggling with high unemployment, labor unrest, service delivery shortcomings and other social challenges that have dampened the expectations of a better life for black South Africans after the end of apartheid two decades ago.
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