JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 87th birthday on Monday, lighting a special torch in his apartheid prison cell as part of a new nationwide drive to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.
The torch was lit just after midnight on Robben Island, the former apartheid prison off Cape Town where Mandela spent almost two decades for seeking to end white rule and bring democracy to the country.
Organisers say the torch, brought back to Cape Town in a blaze of fireworks, will now be taken throughout South Africa as part of Mandela's AIDS awareness campaign and people are being encouraged to drop off birthday greetings at each of its stops around the country.
Mandela had no public engagements on Monday, with aides saying the Nobel Peace laureate planned to spend the day quietly with friends and family at his ancestral home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation has nevertheless arranged a series of events to mark his 87th birthday, including a lecture by a fellow Nobel laureate, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, and a special rugby match next Saturday.
The focus for this year's celebrations has been Mandela's political and moral legacy, with special emphasis on his public support for the battle against HIV/AIDS, an epidemic which now infects more than 5 million of South Africa's 47 million people.
The "46664" AIDS campaign, named after Mandela's one-time prison number, has featured a number of rock concerts including one Mandela attended earlier this year north of the Arctic Circle in Norway.
"The former apartheid government thought they could reduce prisoners to numbers and that the world would forget about them. It didn't happen," the Mandela Foundation said in a statement.
"If we care for those infected and affected with the disease, it could prevent people from becoming part of statistics and reduced to numbers," it added.
Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after landmark elections in 1994, stepped down in 1999 and officially retired from public life last year -- although he continues to keep a punishing schedule as he works for various charitable causes.
South African political parties from across the spectrum joined well-wishers sending Mandela birthday greetings on Monday, with his African National Congress saluting its most famous member as a continued source of hope for millions.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said Mandela was an inspiration for those fighting for worthy causes, while the umbrella Congress of South African Trade Unions said his influence continued undiminished.