IMAGE: MANDELA WITH PETER GABRIEL AND RICHARD BRANSON
Jerome Delay  /  AP
Former South African President Nelson Mandela, flanked by Singer Peter Gabriel, left, and entrepreneur Richard Branson, listens to South African Archibishop Desmond Tutu on Wednesday in Johannesburg.
updated 7/20/2007 8:55:33 AM ET 2007-07-20T12:55:33

Nelson Mandela celebrated his 89th birthday Wednesday by joining with other Nobel peace laureates, politicians and development experts to form a "council of elders" dedicated to fostering peace and resolving global crises.

The event kicked off with about 250 people, including former President Jimmy Carter, singing "Happy Birthday" as a beaming Mandela took the stage, accompanied by an aide and leaning heavily on his cane.

"How God must love South Africa to have given us such a priceless gift!" former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the elders group, told Mandela. "You bowled us all over by your graciousness, magnanimity and generosity of spirit."

Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. Released in 1990, he led negotiations to end white rule. In South Africa's first fully democratic elections in 1994, he was elected president.

He left office in 1999 but has continued to work to reduce poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa.

Branson brainchild
The new humanitarian alliance, called the Elders, was an idea of British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who shares a birthday with Mandela, and musician Peter Gabriel. Branson helped raise the $18 million in funding over three years for the group.

Along with Mandela, Carter and Tutu, the Elders are former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; Ela Bhatt, an Indian women's rights campaigner; former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese envoy to the U.N. who worked in Africa; Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, a longtime campaigner for children's rights; former Irish President Mary Robinson; and Bangladeshi micro-credit pioneer Muhammad Yunus.

A chair stood empty on the stage for Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was invited to join the Elders but is held under house arrest by the country's military junta.

The Elders "will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair," Mandela said.

Mandela, who walked with difficulty and was not expected to take an active role in the new group, joked about his attempts to stay in retirement.

Mandela and Machel often held hands during the event, especially when Tutu reminded the crowd that the day also marked the couple's ninth wedding anniversary.

Gabriel sings 'Biko'
At one point during the emotional gathering, Gabriel sang his "Biko" unaccompanied, leaving Tutu weeping. Black leader Steve Biko died at the hands of the apartheid security forces 30 years ago.

The Elders will decide their priorities in the next few months but it already has a Web site at http://www.theelders.org/.

"My prayer is that the great potential of the Elders might be realized though sound judgment and through dedication and courage," Carter said.

The Elders event was part of a weeklong birthday celebration for Mandela.

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