Maya Angelou first met Nelson Mandela in 1960 while living in Cairo with Vasumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter who was then her husband.
Make was a leader in the Pan Africanist Congress, a rival organization to Mandela’s African National Congress.
At the time, Angelou, now 85 and living in Winston-Salem, was editor of the English-language weekly “The Arab Observer.”
“First, he was handsome,” Angelou said Friday of her initial impressions of Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95. “He was also very kind.”
It didn’t matter to him that Angelou’s husband was in a rival organization, she said.
“They were archrivals, but Mr. Mandela never had an unkind word to say about anybody,” she said. “Not one word.”
That was the kind of man Mandela was — someone who gave compliments easily and sincerely and one who forgave rather than hold onto bitterness, said Angelou, the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
Angelou said she still remembers when famed journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who covered South Africa, told her that Angelou’s books had been slipped into the prison at Robben Island where Mandela spent 27 years. Mandela enjoyed her books and passed them along to other inmates, she said.
Angelou also remembers when Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa in 1994. Mandela invited his former guards to the inauguration and gave them good seats, she said. And Mandela wasn’t doing this to spite those guards or embarrass them, Angelou said.
“It was without rancor,” she said. “He was intelligent, and he knew that rancor was not going to get anything but rancor and more of it.”
Mandela, she said, knew that if you plant kindness, you’ll get kindness.
“He had not only transformed his country from that awful racism,” she said. “The world is better because he lived.”
Angelou said Mandela had a forgiving soul and it wasn’t superficial; he forgave deep in his heart.
“He was a friend of mine and I miss him,” she said. “I knew he was sick. I knew he was 95. While I thought I was ready, I wasn’t.”