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Thursday, July 16, 1998 Published at 18:15 GMT 19:15 UK

World: Africa

Wild party for Mandela's 80th

The first of many birthday cakes to start a year of festivities

A picnic in the Kruger National Park has kicked off a year of birthday celebrations for South African President Nelson Mandela, who turns 80 on Saturday.

BBC correspondent Jane Standley: 'Everyone wants to feel the Mandela magic'
More than 1,000 disadvantaged children were invited to join Mr Mandela at the picnic on Thursday.

Three young girls performed their version of the Spice Girls song "You are so special", as the President danced stiffly.

[ image: Over 1,000 children attended the party]
Over 1,000 children attended the party
The event marked the start of a year of festivities that will be used to raise funds for the president's favourite projects - the Nelson Mandela millennium fund for the needy and the Nelson Mandela children's fund.

Wedding rumours

Meanwhile, media interest in South Africa has been focused on unconfirmed reports that President Mandela may be planning a secret wedding with his long-term companion, the former first lady of Mozambique, Graça Machel.

A BBC correspondent in South Africa says many businesses are hoping to exploit the commercial opportunities of the birthday of the world's most famous former political prisoner.

[ image: Birthday greetings from his daughter Zinzi]
Birthday greetings from his daughter Zinzi
Birthday memorabilia is appearing, as are thousands of messages on Mandela tribute Websites.

Internet contributors have been joined by politicians like Tony Blair, who says in his message that Mr Mandela inspired his generation and will continue to provide a role model for his children.

'Mandela at Eighty' has even been trademarked. A large chain of news agents is donating money to charity for every specially printed card which is bought, and there are hopes for an entry in the record books for the most birthday cards ever received by one person.

Mr Mandela, who is also in his last year of office before bowing out of politics, will spend his actual birthday in private with his family.

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