updated 7/9/2008 12:44:45 PM ET 2008-07-09T16:44:45

Nelson Mandela's pre-birthday celebrations took him to a Johannesburg school Wednesday, where children from across southern Africa told the man they called "grandfather" about the changes they hope to see in their countries.

Smiling from a red chair as he sat next to his wife, Graca Michel, Mandela told the children to "be descriptive writers of your destiny and feature yourself as the stars that show the way to a brighter future for our country, the continent and the world."

"This event is simply the sincere desire to make society more familiar with the smiles of children rather than their tears," Mandela told a crowd of about 1,700 — of whom 1,000 were children.

That goal, he said, is the focus of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, which is one of his main charities. If it were achieved, he said, "Our youth would be happier, our families stronger, our communities safer and our government reasonably at peace with its citizens."

That, he said, is his "dearest wish" for his 90th birthday, which falls on July 18. Wednesday's event at the Lycee Francais Jules Verne, a French school in Johannesburg, was one of a series, from book launches to charity fundraisers, marking his birthday.

Visiting French minister for human rights, Rama Yade, told Mandela that looking at the children who surrounded him she could "understand why you have not fully retired yet."

"You have accomplished so much, and there is so much to accomplish yet," she said.

Earlier, Mandela listened to presentations from members of the Regional Children's Parliament, comprised of children from the Southern African Development Community. Children from South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique spoke of wanting to fix failed economies, end violence and strengthen political organization.

Nokuthula Sikhakhe, a 14-year-old South African member of the parliament, said afterward she was nervous coming to the event, because it was the first time she had seen Mandela in person.

"It was incredible," she said with a smile, giggling with her friends.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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