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Mandela: SA's greatest son laid to rest (slideshow)
The world watched as Nelson Mandela was finally laid to rest in his hometown of Qunu following a dignified and moving funeral ceremony on Sunday.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela said on Monday he "never imagined" reaching the age of 88 as he received one of his first birthday presents -- a shipment of rum and cigars from Cuban President Fidel Castro.
As well wishes poured in ahead of the anti-apartheid icon's birthday on Tuesday, Mandela held a private party with the staff of his foundation and blew out candles on a giant birthday cake.
"In my younger days I never imagined that such an occasion would occur," a smiling Mandela said, reminiscing that a boyhood spent engaged in traditional stick fighting could have shortened his life considerably.
"If you look at my body you will see a lot of marks that were caused by fighting with sticks. And I never thought I would abandon that," Mandela said, showing off a scar on his leg.
Mandela's appearances have become increasingly rare after his announcement in 2004 that he was retiring from public life, and aides say he plans to spend his birthday on Tuesday in private with family.
"He is trying very hard to enjoy retirement, but it's not easy. We are still inundated with requests for his time," said Mandela's spokesperson, Zelda la Grange. "At the age of 88 he is doing exceptionally well, health-wise. However, there is less time for work and a bigger need for more time to attend to his health."
Officials at the Nelson Mandela Foundation say Mandela still goes to his office each week, and he frequently meets visiting dignitaries -- who often end up donating to his favourite causes, which include children, education and Africa's battle against HIV/Aids.
But it is clear that Mandela, who stepped down as president in 1999, is now truly retired, his once hectic schedule pared to a minimum and public appearances rare.
Few in South Africa begrudge Mandela his peace and quiet.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whose long battle against apartheid saw him jailed for 27 years before 1994 all-race elections made him South Africa's first black president, remains beloved as the grandfather of the nation and one of the few moral beacons with genuine worldwide reach.
His role as a unifying figure in a deeply divided society remains important -- and it is here that Mandela's absence is beginning to be felt.
"Mandela represented a struggle that was beyond self-interest. The present generation cannot be compared to Mandela's ... they are the new Mandarins, and materialism and self-interest have taken over," said Sipho Seepe, a political scientist and frequent government critic.
Mandela's successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, has shown little interest in the upbeat "rainbow nation" imagery that was Mandela's trademark, preferring instead to deliver stern pronouncements on South Africa's battles over race, poverty and political power.
Under Mbeki, the ruling African National Congress has hit some of the most serious turbulence of its 94-year history amid deep factional divisions over both political direction and the question of presidential succession.
South Africa's HIV/Aids epidemic, which infects one in nine of the country's 45-million people, sows despair while poverty and joblessness keep huge swathes of the black population locked in desperate lives in ramshackle townships.
Despite its problems, modern South Africa remains a creation of Mandela and his generation, its Constitution admired as among the most progressive in the world and its political discourse rooted in the language of justice and human rights that marked the long anti-apartheid struggle.
Meanwhile, as its namesake ages, the Mandela foundation is boosting activities to promote the "Mandela message" -- holding exhibits, publishing books and convening seminars to illuminate his lessons on opposing racism and building political consensus.
La Grange said the country will be seeing even less of Mandela in the future -- leaving it for better or worse to find its own way to honour his legacy. -- Reuters