On July 17, the walls of the Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center, festooned with dozens of historic anti-Apartheid posters, seemed to vibrate from the joyous applause of the crowd gathered to celebrate Mandela’s 90th birthday.

The celebration was organized and performed by the Bay Area’s renowned Vukani Mawethu Choir, now in its 22nd year. Formed in 1986, they sang at all the anti-Apartheid demonstrations in the Bay Area. Since 1990, the group has been singing to raise funds in support of numerous health and educational projects in the new South Africa.

The Consul General of South Africa Jeanette Ndhlovu and Mbali Creazzo, a member of the Vukani Mawethu Choir, opened the evening with a South African Libation, a traditional giving of thanks to ancestors before a significant event. In Zulu and English, the two women, recited a brief chant in honor of Nelson Mandela, “the man who impacted all our lives and showed the world we can have peaceful resolution to conflict, and we give gratitude to all those who gave their lives so that we could all be free.”

Following a performance of Vukani Mawethu’s full repertoire of South African freedom songs (in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and English), Consul General Ndhlovu returned to the stage. Speaking for the Government of South Africa, she expressed gratitude to Vukani Mawethu for “giving voice to the people of South Africa and oppressed people everywhere.”

Then the Consul General presented the choir with a brass medallion, struck in honor of Nelson Mandela becoming President in 1994, explaining that it is given to those who have made a significant contribution to the struggle. And each member of the choir received a T-shirt for the 2010 World Cup tournament.

Introducing the Consul General, Dr. Boatamo Mosupyoe spoke on Mandela’s historic role. Chair of the Pan African Studies Dept. at California Sate University Sacramento, Dr. Mosupyoe is the author of “Soweto Explodes” and several other books on South Africa. In the 1980s, she was a graduate student, a young single mother and an activist in the anti-Apartheid movement in the Bay Area. For several years now, she and Consul General Ndhlovu, as a team, have traveled internationally, doing peace and reconciliation work in conflict areas.

To wrap up, Vukani did several more numbers, including Civil Rights songs. But folks didn’t want it to end, and most stayed to continue celebrating and dancing until almost midnight. We all sang the traditional Happy Birthday song to Mandela and then the Stevie Wonder version.