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Nelson Mandela's birthday prompts national outpouring of service

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Peter Morey Photographic/AP

(Read caption) Former South African president Nelson Mandela (c.) sits with family members (l. to r.) Zaziwe Manaway, Ziphokazi Manaway, Zamaswazi Dlamini, and Zamak Obiri at Mr. Mandela's hometown in Qunu, South Africa, on July 17, 2011, the day before his birthday. Center back is Mr. Mandela's daughter, Princess Zenani Dlamini.

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Not many world leaders have their birthday celebrated internationally – but not many world leaders are as iconic as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, whose leadership in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa is so well-known that he needs little introduction.

In 2009, the United Nations declared July 18 “Nelson Mandela International Day” in honor of his birthday. This year the UN called for people worldwide to perform 67 minutes of community service in honor of Mandela’s 67 years of public service.

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“It's the power of one as never seen before,” writes reporter Tlalane Tshetlo in South Africa’s The New Age. “From the farthest dorpie [village] to the poorest township, from the city lights of New York to the glitterati of Cape Town’s jet set, Nelson Mandela has galvanised the world into doing good deeds on his birthday that will leave a lasting legacy.”

More than 500 projects were registered with Mandela Day, all but a handful of them in South Africa. One of the most famous was a group bike trip that crisscrossed the country for eight days, performing 67 minutes of service in seven different locations.

This morning, about 12 million students from schools across the country gathered at 8:05 a.m. to sing “happy birthday” to Mandela. His mystique spans several generations.

"Everybody remembers – and, indeed, needs – an inspirational figure who has played a signal role in their lives," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "Nelson Mandela has been that role model for countless people around the world."

In 1999, on the eve of Mandela’s departure from the presidency, The Christian Science Monitor’s former southern Africa correspondent reflected on what made Mandela so revered.

“The power of Mandela is his extraordinary living example as a leader who, after sacrificing 27 years of his life for the ideal of a racially integrated democracy, talked to his enemies and then negotiated them out of power. His commitment to justice, reconciliation, and moral integrity was vital to the success of an often-fraught transition.”

For more information on ways to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day, visit the official site.