Nelson Mandela, the icon of South Africa's struggle against apartheid, marked his 89th birthday today by launching fellow elder statesmen on a venture to reduce conflict and despair.
The former South African president was the host and star turn at a ceremony in Johannesburg to announce the formation of a brains trust of world leaders, bringing together the likes of ex-US president Jimmy Carter and former UN chief Kofi Annan, on a mission to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems.
Supported by a walking stick and his wife Graca Machel on their ninth wedding anniversary, Mandela told his guests they could offer both wisdom and independence of thought after a lifetime of public service.
"Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair," said Mandela as he unveiled the launch of The Elders.
"They don't have careers to build, elections to win and constituencies to please.... I wish them well and hope that they succeed in bringing light to some of the darkness that affects our world."
While his opening address was followed by short speeches from fellow luminaries such as Carter and British tycoon Richard Branson, it was the beaming face of Mandela in one of his trademark shirts that stole the show.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel peace prize winner, said that South Africa had been blessed to have a man of Mandela's stature.
"How God must have loved South Africa by giving us such a wonderful person. You make us feel great about being human," said Tutu.
His successor as president and leader of the governing African National Congress (ANC), Thabo Mbeki, has long struggled to emerge from the shadow of Mandela, but he was among those who paid tribute to the man who is more widely known in South Africa by his clan name Madiba.
"The country and the world are privileged to celebrate the life of such an outstanding leader of our people," he said.
After what is becoming an increasingly rare public appearance, Mandela was to spend the evening watching a football match played in his honour in Cape Town from the comfort of his living room in Johannesburg.
The celebrations come as a new survey showed the anti-apartheid icon, who spent 27 years behind bars for his role in the fight against the whites-only apartheid regime, was more popular than ever -- especially among whites.
Mandela has limited his political activities since announcing his retirement from public life in 2004, although he still releases occasional video messages and holds private audiences with visiting statesmen.
As Mandela was hosting the launch in Johannesburg, a galaxy of stars from the football world, such as Dutch legend Ruud Gullit and Cameroon ace Samuel Eto'o, visited the former prison colony on Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity.
They later appeared at Cape Town's Newlands stadium for a special "90 Minutes for Mandela" match designed to raise money for his foundation.
The contest between an Africa team and a "Rest of the World" XI drew three all after a slower-paced but good spirited match in which players' ages ranged from the mid-20s to nearly 50.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the match was an opportunity "to honour an extraordinary man who dedicated his lifetime to the promotion of human rights and democracy."
Gullit, a former European player of the year and manager of Chelsea, said the lesson from Mandela's life was that "there is always hope."
"If you believe in yourself and fight hard for the right thing, you will succeed," he said.
A survey meanwhile published by the researchers Markinor gave Mandela a 92 per cent approval rating among South Africans, including 78 per cent from the white population. That compares with a rating of 32 per cent in 1992, two years after his release from prison.