New York: Nelson Mandela feared and hated his apartheid jailers when he left prison but overcoming that "demon" is a sign of his greatness, former US president Bill Clinton said on Thursday.
Bill Clinton, UN leader Ban Ki-moon and Andrew Mlangeni, who was a prisoner with Mandela, honoured the legendary freedom fighter in a special ceremony at the UN headquarters as Mandela spent his 95th birthday in hospital.
Bill Clinton said Mandela ended his 27 years in an apartheid jail "a greater man than he went in" but also told how the ordeal had left its mark on the legendary figure.
"Every day was a struggle, I could see it in his eyes even after he became president. Some old demon would rise up and somebody would do or say something stupid, but he fought it every day," Bill Clinton said at the UN General Assembly.
Bill Clinton told how he had discussed with Mandela his now historic walk to freedom from the jail along a dirt road and how he had been a "canny politician" inviting his jailer to his inauguration and bringing opposition parties into his government.
"Tell me the truth: when you were walking down the road that last time didn`t you hate them?" Bill Clinton said he questioned Mandela.
"He said briefly: `I did. I am old enough to tell the truth.` He said: `I felt hatred and fear but I said to myself, if you hate them when you get in that car you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free and so I let it go.`
"He said: `People can take everything from you. I lost my family, the chance to see my children grow up, the best years of my life. They can take everything except your mind and your heart. Those things I decided not to give away.`
"He looked at me and smiled and said: `Neither should you`."
Bill Clinton said he was also one of the rare people alive who had seen Mandela "in a less saintly role" when the two were arguing as presidents of the United States and South Africa.
"On rare occasions he would even get angry with me when he disagreed with our positions. But what I know is his heart was so big and his humanity so great we often had trouble keeping our official roles apart from our personal friendship," Bill Clinton said.
Ban told the assembly the world is united in praying for Mandela in hospital.
"We are united in concern. We are also joined in admiration for a towering figure in the worldwide fight for equality and justice," the UN secretary general told the ceremony.