Sixteen-year-old Genius Molefe wasn’t born when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, but she joined many South Africans in 67 minutes of community service marking his birthday Thursday.
Molefe joined a government and UN-backed campaign to mark 67 years of Mandela’s public despite the fact her knowledge of the icon’s political life is limited to books, television retrospectives and family stories.
“My father always tells me about the role played by Mandela and other leaders in ending the political violence in the townships after he came out of prison,” she said.
“It is a great privilege for me to say that today I did my bit in support of Mandela Day, even if it’s for the first time,” she said.
The high school student from Mamelodi township north of the capital Pretoria joined her schoolmates in cleaning a local old age home.
Across the country a similar picture unfolded as soup kitchens were thrown up, blankets handed out and dilapidated buildings torn down.
For Molefe it was a way of tapping Mandela’s moral courage, and perhaps experiencing its impact for the first time.
In the years since Mandela left public office many South Africans, black and white, have become disheartened by corruption and mismanagement that is rife in Mandela’s ANC.
“Helping old people, who are probably the same age as Mandela, made me feel that I’m doing something meaningful. I felt proudly South African,” said Molefe.
“It feels good to do something for other people.”
After doing her bit, Molefe headed to the hospital were Mandela has spent 41 days under intensive care.
Outside the hospital Molefe and members of her school choir spent an hour singing spirited hymns and traditional birthday songs.
“I believe that Mandela is like our living ancestor and his name should always be in our minds. Every day should be a Mandela Day, not just 67 minutes,” she said.
July 18 was declared International Mandela Day by the United Nations in 2010, but this year has taken on extra meaning.
“I never really thought much of this day until recently, it has always been just another day, until I realised that Madiba’s life is failing,” said Molefe adding that the day was a great way of instilling selflessness in people.
The Nobel prize laureate is said to be improving after being admitted for a recurring lung infection.
Hundreds of well wishers joined Molefe outside the hospital bearing birthday cards and banners with handwritten messages.
The messages were pinned on the wall, together with hundreds of other “get well” messages which have been accumulating outside the facility since Mandela was admitted there on June 8.
“Most people were fearing the worst. I hope to be here when he gets out,” said Morris Peterson.
After retiring from public life Mandela used to celebrate his birthday by hosting lavish parties at his home in Johannesburg and his rural homestead in Qunu.
The parties were attended by close friends and politicians.