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Nelson Mandela: So big, he's a holiday too

The declaration of Mandela Day on July 18 honors South Africa's former leader with call to humanitarian service.

JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world’s most recognizable living icon, is becoming even more famous.

The most well-known face of the anti-apartheid movement and the first black South African president has lent his name to streets, museums, a university and even a metropolitan area, but now he has gone one step further, endorsing an effort to name a holiday after him. Mandela Day, which coincides with the 91-year-old’s birthday July 18, has been launched by international campaigners as a call to community service honoring the leader's own dedication to the welfare of others.

"It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it," said Mandela in a message endorsing Mandela Day. "Our struggle for freedom and justice was a collective effort. Mandela Day is no different."

“He has had an amazing life and I think he has affected each and everyone of us,” said Ruth Rensburg, who is in charge of fundraising for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, “but I think the message now is that it’s in our hands, it’s our turn to pick up those burdens.”

For Mandela Day, people across the world are asked to spend 67 minutes of their time for worthy causes. The number 67 echoes the years Mandela spent in public service, from his early political involvement with the African National Congress in 1942 to today. Participants’ pledges have ranged from spending time with the elderly and distributing food to the needy to planting trees.

July 18 will also feature a concert in New York starring a range of celebrities including France’s singing first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys. Morgan Freeman, who plays Mandela in an upcoming movie, is also expected to attend the event, whose proceeds will be shared by the various Mandela charities. Mandela himself will spend the day at home with “friends, family and comrades,” Rensburg said.

Mandela Day is the latest installment in the shaping of Mandela’s legacy after his presidential term ended in 1999. The Nelson Mandela Foundation aims to preserve Mandela’s memory and promote dialogue in South Africa and abroad, while 46664, named after Mandela’s prison number, focuses on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund supports the cause of the South Africa’s children, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation seeks to foster leadership in Africa.

Looking increasingly frail, Mandela is now officially retired. His public appearances are rare, and he communicates mostly through recorded messages. Yet, his place in South African society is difficult to overstate. In a letter addressed to Mandela for his birthday, President Jacob Zuma said: “If by chance an inspirational life story was equated to a monetary value, then the life Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) still lives would remove South Africa from the clutches of the global economic recession!”