4 July 1997


President Nelson Mandela brought joy and excitement to the lives of 1200 children with life-threatening diseases on Friday when they joined him at a party in Cape Town to celebrate his forthcoming 79th birthday.

The children, of all races and suffering from diseases like cancer, leukaemia, Aids and muscular dystrophy, came from all over South Africa to party with Mandela in the vast Culemborg exhibition centre on the city's foreshore.

In a speech to thank sponsors who made the day possible, Mandela made an impassioned plea for all sectors of society to help the government fight especially the Aids scourge.

World Health Organisation and Unicef reports indicated that by the year 2000 well over a million South African children would be infected by HIV or directly affected by its devastating consequences, Mandela said.

Many would die before they were four years old.

"During their short lives they need special care, nursing and support. They need love. But who will give them this if communities continue to turn their backs?"

Mandela said all too often infected babies, or those who lived with infected families, were abandoned and rejected. Aids turned them into orphans.

Many of the children at Friday's party were wheelchair-bound.

As Mandela walked slowly through the hall they were pushed forward by their minders to shake the ever-obliging president's hand.

He bent over and exchanged a smile and kind words with each one he could reach.

Many of the children have at best a few years to live.

Interviewed by a local radio station, Mandela said he wished the children would be given love and whatever else they required.

Children in general should make use of their opportunities. No country could develop if it did not give its children opportunities, Mandela said, adding that child abuse was one of the worst crimes and had to be eradicated.

Asked how he planned to spend his birthday on July 18, Mandela said he had no firm plans yet, but every year he tried to share his special day with people with the same birthday.

Some children helped the president blow out 79 candles on a giant Table Mountain-shaped fruit cake.

Last year Mandela hosted a party for disabled children aged four to 16 who were not part of any existing support programme, and in 1995 street children were invited to the president's birthday party.

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