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Nelson Mandela honored with global call to serve

South African schoolchildren mark Nelson Mandela's 93rd birthday
A group of schoolchildren participate in a symbolic handover on July 17, 2011 at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg to set the tone before the Mandela's 93rd birthday and Mandela Day on July 18, 2011. Getty

After first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia met Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa last month, the first family kicked off the U.S. commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day, created by the U.N. two years ago to mark the democracy icon's birthday.

"Madiba continues to be a beacon for the global community, and for all who work for democracy, justice and reconciliation," said Michelle Obama at the time, referring to Mandela by his nickname.

For 2011, the U.N. is marking Mandela Day, and Mandela's 93rd birthday, with a request: 67 minutes of community service, from everyone, in honor of the man who has given so much himself.

The "Take Action! Inspire Change" campaign for Nelson Mandela International Day asks communities to take just over an hour for community service to honor Mandela's 67 years of service, which culminated in his election as the first democratically-elected president of a post-apartheid South Africa.

"Everybody remembers -- and, indeed, needs -- an inspirational figure who has played a signal role in their lives," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "Nelson Mandela has been that role model for countless people around the world."

In 1993, Mandela, who was in prison for 27 years, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with then-President of South Africa FW de Klerk, for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa.

In South Africa, 12 million schoolchildren sang "Happy Birthday" to the elder statesman as classes began, and at U.N. Headquarters in New York, visitors are able to make their pledge to "67 minutes of service" in an open message that will be sent to Mandela. (You can also make the pledge on the Mandela Day website.)

In New York's Central Park, South Africa's Deputy U.N. Ambassador, Advocate Doc Mashabane Mashabane, is planning to paint park benches with the help of other volunteers.

Not tainting the day, U.S.-South Africa relations have soured recently over the issue of Libya and have been particularly edgy with the participation of South Africa as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

South African President Jacob Zuma has been critical of the U.N. resolution which is enabling the ongoing NATO bombing of Libya, which was meant to protect civilians.

"We strongly believe that the resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation," Zuma charged recently.

Zuma was not available during the first lady's trip to South Africa - widely seen as a missed opportunity, at best, and, at worst, a slight.

Along with Russia's President Dmitri Medvedev, Zuma has been trying to negotiate an end to the Libya conflict between Qaddafi and the rebel umbrella group, the Transitional National Council, which the U.S. formally recognized this past week.

Regardless of current friction, Nelson Mandela International

Day has taken off around the world in the two years since the U.N. created it.

"Mandela has been a lawyer and a freedom fighter, a political prisoner, a peacemaker and president," the Secretary-General said, "A healer of nations and a mentor to generations, Nelson Mandela - or Madiba as he is affectionately known by millions - is a living symbol of wisdom, courage and integrity."

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