Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, celebrated his 91st birthday on Saturday with the launch of a special day for good deeds to be done in his name.
Surrounded by family and anti-apartheid stalwarts at his home in Johannesburg, the increasingly frail elder statesman was showered with messages of goodwill from world leaders to ordinary South Africans.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led the international plaudits by describing Mandela as "a living embodiment of the highest values of the United Nations.
"His commitment to a democratic, multi-racial South Africa, his steadfast pursuit of justice, his willingness to reconcile with those who persecuted him most -- these are just some of the hallmarks of a remarkable man," Ban said.
The charitable foundation of the former South African leader called on people around the world to do good deeds on Saturday as it launched an official day in Mandela's honour.
"Mandela Day is an annual celebration of Nelson Mandela?s life and a global call to action for people to recognize their individual power to make an imprint and change the world around them," his foundation said.
The initiative received backing from senior UN figures.
"I warmly welcome the global campaign to recognize the birthday of Nelson Mandela, July 18, as an annual opportunity to celebrate this great man and the values and principles that he has come personify over the past seven decades," said president of the UN General Assembly Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann.
"I hope that Mandela Day will eventually be celebrated as a United Nations international day to serve as an inspiration, in particularly to our young people, and as invitation to join forces in the ever-more complex and urgent campaigns against poverty, racism, ignorance and violence."
Celebrations were to be held in Mandela's honour from Johannesburg to New York, where Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was to join a glittering line-up led by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.
It will be the first time France's 41-year-old first lady, a former model and musician, has performed in public since marrying President Nicolas Sarkozy in January 2008.
Throughout the day there was a steady trickle of well-wishers through Mandela's home in Johannesburg's well-heeled northern suburb of Houghton, where a white marquee had been erected next to the house, behind tall security walls.
Former African heads of state, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Hassan Mwinyi of Tanzania were among the few invited guests who came to wish Mandela well.
"It is always a great honour to see him, he is one of the great African leaders," said Kaunda.
Renditions of "Happy Birthday" were heard, sung in English and Mandela's own Xhosa tongue.
South African President Jacob Zuma praised Mandela as a beacon of hope, saying it had taken too long for the country to celebrate "this gold that is Nelson Mandela".
Family also paid tribute to their beloved Madiba -- the clan title by which Mandela is affectionately known.
"Granddad is in great spirits and enjoying the day, he is so happy to be surrounded by friends and family and the entire leadership of the ruling party," said eldest grandson Mandla Zwelivelile. "It is a great day for him."
This year's birthday marks the inaugural Mandela Day, initiated by his charitable foundation in honour of the much-loved icon.
People around the world are being urged to dedicate 67 minutes of their day to volunteer their time for community service. The number reflects the number of years since Mandela took up the struggle for equality in South Africa.
Mandela was jailed for 27 years by the apartheid state but emerged from Robben Island prison in 1990 committed to democracy and negotiated a deal that led to universal suffrage and him becoming the country's first black president.
In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South Africa's then white president F.W. de Klerk.
Mandela served only one term as president during which he was seen as a multi-racial unifier amidst South Africa's post-apartheid uncertainty.
He still campaigns extensively for children and AIDS awareness and is seen as one of the world's most respected elder statesmen, despite having officially retired from public duty in 2004.
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