As Mandela turns 94, South Africa celebrates hero who paid a high price

(CBS News) QUNU, South Africa - The party has started, even if the guest of honor didn't show up. When Nelson Mandela turns 94, the occasion draws a crowd, especially here in the rural village of Qunu, the Mandela ancestral home to which he has returned

Among those attending was former President Bill Clinton, who has maintained a friendship with the former South African president.

Mandela himself is too frail to make public appearances these days.

"I don't think he wanted to be a hero," Clinton told CBS News. "I think he wanted to lead his country into freedom and unity and it was heroic and when the price turned out to be very high he just kept paying it."

It's a special birthday celebration that gets expressed in many ways: through a song children in South Africa and beyond have been rehearsing; and through good works projects. People have been asked to donate 67 minutes of their time -- a minute for each year Mandela gave to public service.

Good deeds celebrate Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday

It's produced some remarkable scenes, like hardened prisoners fixing up a school.

Even someone serving a sentence for murder, like Mzolisi Ntakuna, finds inspiration in Mandela's life.

Inside Nelson Mandela's private 94th birthday

"He's a young man to me and I love him very much," Ntakuna said. He said it's been an inspiration to change his life: "I need to change my life and he's the one who changed our lives here in South Africa."

Mandela is spending his birthday at the family compound where he lives -- and where he grew up -- attended by a small medical staff. How much he notices of the celebration we don't really know. But the country he held together certainly notices and so do people around the world

Mandela's fight against the persecution of apartheid, his decades in prison, and his emergence to become his country's president made him an international hero.

But it made him something of a stranger to members of his own family. Grandson Kweku, who spent his childhood in the United States, said it was a price the whole Mandela clan paid.

"He knew he was sacrificing that," Kweku said. "He's always been very open about that. And I always say, 'Did it hurt people?' Yes it did. obviously. But do we regret the decisions he made? No."

And neither does his country.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.