Nelson Mandela, the revered former South African president, remained hospitalized on his 95th birthday Thursday, although doctors and family members said his health was improving. Outside the hospital, people celebrated:

Throngs of South Africans gathered outside the green gates of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital, singing “Happy Birthday,” dancing or blowing vuvuzelas, the long plastic horns that were ubiquitous during the World Cup soccer matches held in South Africa in 2010.

“We are all here as a nation to celebrate the great man’s birthday,” declared Constance Felix, 65, who made a six-hour journey by bus from Eastern Cape Province. “We are not down and out because he is sick. It shows the nation still has hope for him.”

When she learned that Mandela’s health is said to be better, she added: “My spirit is lifted up and encouraged. We need him to stay with us longer.”. . .

The mood was jubilant. Marching bands played “Happy Birthday” as well as South Africa’s national anthem. School children dressed in the green and yellow colors of the ruling African National Congress party sang tributes to Mandela as their parents and teachers proudly watched. Others signed the hundreds of banners plastered on the wall of the hospital wishing Mandela a speedy recovery.

Some vendors sold Mandela T-shirts and pins. Television crews from all over the world were out in force, covering the celebrations. Around Pretoria, the government had plastered posters of Mandela, with uplifting slogans and quotes from the icon.

“Your life remains our inspiration,” read one poster.

Mercy Mokgoane, 39,noted that under the former apartheid regime’s segregationist laws, she wouldn’t have been allowed to stand in front of the hospital.

“Only our mothers were allowed into this area because they were the maids of the white people,” said Mokgoane. “The way we live now is because of Madiba.”

Sudarsan Raghavan

The improvement in Mandela’s health follows a hospital stay that has lasted more than a month:

The anti-apartheid leader was taken to a Pretoria hospital on June 8 for treatment for a recurring lung infection. In previous announcements, the government said he was in critical but stable condition. Court documents filed by Mandela’s family earlier this month had said Mandela was on life support.

Mandela is making “remarkable progress,” said one of his daughters, Zindzi, on Thursday, after tense weeks in which some South Africans talked about the possibility that Mandela was on the verge of dying.

“We look forward to having him back at home soon,” the South African Press Association quoted Zindzi Mandela as saying during the government rollout of a digital ID card system.

Ndileka Mandela, a granddaughter of Mandela, poured soup for poor children at a charity event and said her family had been unsure about whether her grandfather would live to see his birthday.

“But because of the fighter that he is, he was able to fight a repressive system, and he was able, through God and everybody’s prayers, to make it today,” she said.

Associated Press

In Washington, veterans of the international campaign against apartheid remembered Mandela’s efforts:

On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1984, a small group of Washington activists walked into the South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. They had grown weary of their frustration with the in­trac­table racial injustice in South Africa. They saw a system they did not like. They wanted to do something about it. It was the kind of bubbling disturbance that, if timed right, can launch a movement.

As Nelson Mandela lies ill in a Pretoria hospital on his 95th birthday, the ties between those Washington activists and the South African icon are being remembered Thursday on what has come to be known as Mandela Day. Events are planned throughout the District as part of a worldwide commemoration of Mandela’s legacy of racial reconciliation. An evening celebration at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church is set to bring attention to the unlikely success of the Free South Africa Movement, which was started by those activists in the District and focused attention in the United States on the plight of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. . . .

“You think about these things very strategically. What can move the needle and what will likely not,” said Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica, the oldest African American foreign policy organization in the United States. “You can protest. But if you can make the wind move, you have to put a sail up. To make the wind move where there is no sail is useless.”

Back in the mid-1980s at the South African Embassy, they made the wind move. They put up a sail.

U.S. activists had tried before and failed to bring attention to the situation an ocean away, where 23 million black South Africans were ruled by 4.5 million whites, forced to carry passbooks, and killed, beaten or thrown in jail for bucking apartheid. Mandela, then a leader of the freedom movement, had been in prison for 20 years. He was not a household name in America.

With a little planning and the hope that they could get some attention on a slow news day, Robinson and other Washingtonians — including Mary Frances Berry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Walter E. Fauntroy — began a protest at the embassy. They told the South African ambassador of their demands: freedom for Mandela and the release of political prisoners.

“Then we told him we weren’t leaving,” Berry recalled.

Krissah Thompson

For past coverage of Mandela’s illness, continue reading here.