QUNU, South Africa  - Former president Bill Clinton hailed his close ties with Nelson Mandela before visiting the anti-apartheid icon’s home in his childhood village ahead of his 94th birthday.

Clinton spent two hours inside Mandela’s family compound in Qunu, the picturesque south-eastern village where Mandela grew up. Media were barred from entering the area and Clinton left without speaking. Before the visit Clinton opened a library at a primary school together with Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, and daughter Zindzi ahead of the statesman’s birthday Wednesday.

“Even though he will be 94 tomorrow, when I think about Mandela I always think about someone committed to the future,” he said afterwards. “It was a great honour for me to serve as a president of America while Mandela was president of the Republic of South Africa.

“We worked together as presidents and even after we left office we continued working together to improve education of the children worldwide in order for them to share the future,” he added. Mandela’s wife Graca thanked “the family of Clinton for being with the family of Mandela because each and every birthday president Clinton has always availed himself.”

“As the Mandela family we really appreciate the bond between these two families,” said Machel. In 2009 the United Nations declared July 18 as International Mandela Day, aimed at getting people all over the world to volunteer for good causes. Around 3,000 schoolchildren, residents and government officials braved a chilly winter wind to attend the library opening. Some schoolchildren performed a traditional dance in honour of the visit. Clinton, who travelled with his daughter Chelsea, then planted a tree with Machel at the Garden of Remembrance, the burial place for local chiefs.

Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president after spending 27 years in jail for his battle against white-minority oppression.

Respected for reconciling his country, the increasingly frail icon has largely withdrawn from public life. He returned to Qunu in May after a brief hospital stay in Pretoria in February.