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South African President Jacob Zuma (2nd L) stands behind a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside Parliament in Cape Town June 17, 2014. REUTERS/Schalk van Zuydam/Pool

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PRETORIA (Reuters) - South Africa launched a set of limited edition gold and silver coins on Friday to honour former president Nelson Mandela on what would have been the late anti-apartheid hero's 96th birthday.

The South African Reserve Bank said the set of three coins was a tribute to South Africa's first democratic president's "dedication to life-long learning".

The centrepiece is a 24 carat gold coin etched with Mandela's portrait with his arms folded, inscribed with his words: "Every where it is accepted that students... have the right to freedom of thought."

The second coin, also gold, shows an elderly Mandela over-looking his alma mater the University of Fort Hare -a blacks-only university and a hotbed of anti-government activity during apartheid.

The third is a sterling silver coin that depicts a young Mandela learning to write his name on his first day of school.

The United Nations designated July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day in 2009.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, editing by John Stonestreet)

Reuters