Nelson Mandela, the first president of a democratic South Africa, and international symbol of freedom and peace, turns 94 today.
The former president’s birthday also marks the fourth annual Nelson Mandela International Day, set up in 2009 in honor of Mandela’s efforts to end the racism experienced by Black South Africans during apartheid.
“Nelson Mandela’s personal story is one of unbreakable will, unwavering integrity, and abiding humility,” President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama said in a statement. “Our family has been inspired by Madiba’s example and has deeply appreciated the time we have spent with him, and his wisdom, grace, and generosity of spirit.”
Mandela is known to South Africans as Madiba, the name of the clan Mandela belongs to. Mandela’s political career began when he was a young member of the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela and other freedom fighters were persecuted for their resistance to oppression and apartheid in South Africa.
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” said Mandela in a statement while on trial for sabotage in Pretoria, South Africa, listed on a site dedicated to his legacy. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela gave up a portion of his life when he spent 27 years of a prison life sentence for allegedly planning to overthrow the government. But prison didn’t thwart Mandela’s efforts to obtain the end of apartheid, an institution based on legal racial segregation. In 1994, Mandela became the first president of a post- apartheid, democratic South Africa.
The Cape Times notes the celebrations across South Africa in honor of Mandela’s birthday. Mandela is praised for his “sterling contribution to the achievement of justice, freedom, and democracy in our country,” South African President Jacob Zuma said.