MVEZO, South Africa (AP) — A couple of decades ago, Nelson Mandela grew withdrawn while feasting with his family on Christmas Day in the part of rural South Africa where the anti-apartheid leader lived as a child. Alarmed by the patriarch’s silence, some relatives looked at him and asked if anything was wrong.
“‘I’m just wondering what the rest of the community is doing while we’re having a huge meal,’” Mandela said at the time, according to his grandson, Mandla.
Family members immediately canvassed the neighborhood for children to join their party, rounding up a merry band of 60, and so began an annual tradition that ballooned in popularity. A scaled down version was held Tuesday in Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace, drawing hundreds of local children to a celebration whose 94-year-old founder could not attend because he is in hospital care.
President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, joined Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, and other family members to wish a Merry Christmas to Mandela at his hospital bedside in Pretoria, the South African capital.
“We found him in good spirits,” Zuma said in a statement. “He shouted my clan name, Nxamalala, as I walked into the ward! He was happy to have visitors on this special day and is looking much better. The doctors are happy with the progress that he is making.”
Mandela was admitted Dec. 8 to a hospital. He was diagnosed with a lung infection and also had a procedure to remove gallstones. Officials have previously said Mandela was improving, but doctors are taking extraordinary care because he is very old.
In Mvezo, it was a rainy day, but the 800 children attending the Mandela party were happy to sweep up sunglasses, dolls, toy cars, blankets and other gifts. They cavorted and whooped under a big tent. Loud music livened the moment. One little girl, however, didn’t get her wish.
“I wish to see Tata Mandela back home to have Christmas with us,” said four-year-old Babalwa Booi. “Tata” means father in South Africa’s Xhosa language.
“This is a special day to us mainly because of the lessons drawn from my grandfather,” said Mandla Mandela, a tribal chief in the Mvezo area of Eastern Cape province.