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As Mandela nears 88, SA ponders icon's legacy
As the anti-apartheid icon turns 88 and increasingly shuns the limelight.

Nelson Mandela still enters the room with the pizzazz of a movie star, grinning broadly, tossing out jokes and stopping to shake hands with awestruck wellwishers.

But as the anti-apartheid icon turns 88 and increasingly shuns the limelight, South Africa is pondering how to keep alive his legacy of political justice and social tolerance.

Some fear the messages appear to be fading as the country struggles with race, poverty and politics in its second decade of democracy.

"There is a danger that we are becoming lazy," Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Foundation said on Wednesday.

"Mandela always said the walk [to freedom] is never done. And South Africa's walk is far from over," he added.

Harris helped organise a photo exhibit and new book entitled 'The Meaning of Mandela' to enshrine Mandela's message and launch a week of celebrations ahead of the July 18th birthday of the father of modern South Africa.

"This is a big affair, man!" a beaming Mandela said as he entered the room to a standing ovation from dozens of old comrades at the photo show and book launching.

But thereafter Mandela was silent -- leaving others to discuss whether South Africa is holding true to his political legacy.

Since stepping down as president in 1999 and retiring from official duties in 2004, Mandela has quietly slipped from public life -- a smiling, avuncular figure now glimpsed only occasionally and heard from even less.

While South Africa continues to wage often angry battles over whether the end of apartheid has meant a better life for all South Africans, Mandela rarely enters the fray except to discuss his own new mission, Africa's fight against its devastating HIV/Aids epidemic.

Aides say Mandela, who remains relatively healthy despite persistent leg problems, will spend his birthday next week quietly with his family as he has done for several years.

Official events are limited to a few minor appearances and a public lecture, delivered this year President Thabo Mbeki, on July 29.

But foundation officials are eager to keep Mandela's message -- if not the man -- firmly in the public eye.

The new photo exhibit is one such reminder, depicting Mandela's long battle for freedom including 27 years in apartheid prisons and culminating in the South Africa's joyous first all-race elections in 1994.

Jurgen Schadeberg, who with legendary South African photographer Alf Khumalo took the pictures, said the record was intended to show younger South Africans how far the country had come and where it was headed.

"Only in the very distant future will we really understand what he has done for South Africa," Schadeberg said.

That question is also addressed in the new book 'The Meaning of Mandela', comprised of lectures on Mandela by fellow Nobel laureate, Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, and prominent United States academics Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West.

"There is no way that there can be a singular meaning of Mandela," said Xolela Mangcu, the book's editor.

"[Mandela] will mean so many things to so many people. The only thing that will bring these people together is the idea of freedom." - Reuters