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Castro sends Madiba rum and cigars

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.

But the Nobel Peace laureate still grabs chances to promote his main causes, which include Africa's fight against HIV and Aids and the need to increase educational opportunities for children.

"Today we want children who are educated, because if you have no education you can never lead," Mandela said on Monday, adding that he was gratified by the response his pleas for more help with schools had received.

"When I came out of jail I came to a new South Africa," said Mandela, who walked free in 1990 after some 27 years spent in apartheid prisons. "When I went to jail nobody was interested in educating black children."

Mandela's spokesperson, Zelda La Grange, said the man affectionately known as "Madiba" around South Africa was in fine shape and looking forward to his birthday.

"He's doing very, very well," La Grange told the SABC. "He regularly goes for medical check-ups... we are very happy that he is in good spirits and good health on his 88th birthday."

La Grange said presents for Mandela were beginning to arrive from around the world, including a pair of hand-made sheepskin slippers from village women in the Eastern Cape and the special birthday shipment from Cuba's Castro.

"The president kept his promise and sent the rum and cigars," La Grange said of Castro. Mandela, however, is a committed anti-smoker and not known as a drinker.

Source: Independent Online