Celebrations around the world marked Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, but perhaps the most special one was inside a South African hospital room where the ailing anti-apartheid leader was surrounded by several generations of his family.
“We sang him ‘Happy Birthday’ and he smiled at us,” said Mandela’s grandson, Kweku Mandela.
The former South African president has been hospitalized with a recurring lung infection since June 8.
“He’s still critical but stable, and we’ve been seeing slow but improving signs,” Kweku Mandela said. “We’re all confident that he’ll eventually come back home and his condition will improve quite drastically.”
Kweku Mandela, a filmmaker, said he still sees the same resilient spirit in his grandfather that helped him survive 27 years in prison.
“He’s a fighter and he continues to be one,” Kweku Mandela said. “I think that it’s just the belief in knowing who he is and knowing who we are as people that gives me comfort to say that he’ll fight through this and he’ll be OK.”
Ndileka Mandela, the former South African president’s granddaughter, said the first time she met her grandfather, who she had viewed as “kind of a myth,” was at the prison where he was held on Robben Island.
“It was amazing, but my one regret was that I wished I could touch him,” she said, recalling how he greeted her with a kiss on a glass panel that separated inmates from their visitors.
Family, she said, is something that has always anchored Mandela, who urged his grandchildren to get educations.
“Every time you would sit with him, he would tell you, ‘Without education, nobody will take you seriously,’” Ndileka Mandela said.
As Mandela’s family keeps vigil at the hospital on his birthday, they have also honored Kathy Eldon, a woman who was inspired by his legacy with a Points of Light Award. Eldon is a co-founder of the Creative Visions Foundation, which has raised money for more than 150 projects on five continents.
“She basically helps foundations and non-profits find a unique way to create great activism and get their message out there, and ultimately to help change people’s lives,” Kweku Mandela said.
He said Eldon has “been a shining light, great mentor and great supporter” of the work he and his cousin have been doing with their foundation, Africa Rising, which works to create a positive image of the African continent through film, media and social interaction.
“She kept telling me [I was] bright, intelligent and how she saw something in me,” Mandela said, “constantly encouraging me to do better and to want to do better.”
ABC News’ Robin Wiener, Polson Kanneth, Teri Whitcraft, Arthur Niemynski and Brian Fudge contributed to this episode.