Maya Angelou: Mandela taught mankind the power of forgiveness

Author and poet Maya Angelou remembered former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday, as the man who taught people “how liberating it is to forgive.”

That lesson, she said, was critical to the future of the African nation when Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years and sought unification for the country rather than revenge on the people who had put him in jail.

“With the attitudes and the anger in South Africa after apartheid had there been no Mandela we would see the blood running in the street because apartheid was so brutal and the people were so angry, the black people were so angry and the white people felt so guilty,” Angelou said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

She told host Bob Schieffer that Mandela’s kindness is the quality she would like the world to remember.

“I think you can’t really forgive unless you are really kind. And so you forgive a person or persons or systems, you forgive them and then you don’t have to drag them around with you every day,  and all day and all night long,” she said. “It is a gift to yourself to forgive and I would say that Nelson Mandela’s gift to the world was his ability to forgive.”

Other leaders echoed Angelou’s praise. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Mandela was “in the mold of Gandhi.” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.,  a civil rights leader, said Mandela “taught all of us how to live, how not to become bitter or hostile.”

“I wish we had a few Nelson Mandela’s in America, or maybe a few more in the world, to point us to the best part of our human spirit,” he said.

Activist Randall Robinson recalled being arrested for a sit-in in front of the South African Embassy in the early days of U.S. protests against apartheid.

“We were trying to accomplish several things. One, we were trying to build an environment, an atmosphere in which to remove the underpinning that the United States had been providing to South Africa in investments and loans, computer technology, in military assistance of one kind or another. We were the legs on which apartheid stood together with other industrialized western nations so we thought our role was to remove that underpinning,” he said.

“Nelson Mandela ushered in a dramatically different kind of South Africa. And we thought it was our responsibility to play a small part in that struggle because our country was a major part of the black community’s problem in South Africa. We were on the wrong side of the issue and the wrong side of history,” Robinson said.

He recalled specifically President Ronald Reagan’s role in supporting the white South African government and opposing sanctions or penalties against the country until Congress forced the issue by passing a trade sanctions bill and then overriding Reagan’s veto.

“I’m sure he did regret it,” former Secretary of State James Baker, who served as Reagan’s first chief of staff, said of Reagan’s veto. “I’m certain that he did. It was after all, the only time that a veto of his had been overridden, or was overridden, in two terms, I believe. And so, certainly he regretted it. On the other hand, once that happened, and control of South African policy passed to the Congress, President Reagan was really determined to meet with and deal with the black leaders of South Africa and deal with the problems of apartheid. And he was able to do so."

Baker met Mandela in Namibia just three weeks after his release from prison.

“I was really amazed at the soft spokenness of this man, at the conviction of this man, at the dignity of this man,” Baker said. “He had an enduring and endearing presence of dignity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on any other person. And I just have always felt that this was an extraordinarily beautiful human being who became, of course, an icon of freedom, of human rights, and of reconciliation.”

mandela_deklerk_handshake.jpg
Nelson Mandela, then-South African National Congress (ANC) President (l) and South Africa's last apartheid President Frederik de Klerk(r), shake hands December 10, 1993, in Oslo after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prizes. De Klerk shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for their efforts insecuring a peaceful transition from apartheid rule. De Klerk resigned as leaderof South African National Party in 1997, having served as Mandela's second deputy President until 1996.
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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