Nelson Mandela's New Zealand legacy

01:00, Dec 06 2013

Nelson Mandela charmed New Zealanders with his mana, smile and messages of thanks during his only visit here as President of South Africa.

There was forgiveness too after the All Blacks had for years visited South Africa and hosted return Springbok tours, despite widespread pleas to cut rugby ties with the apartheid regime.

Mandela told leaders of the anti-apartheid movement on his 1995 visit that they had chosen to speak out when it was less fashionable to do so.

''You elected to brave the batons and pronounce that New Zealand could not be free when other human beings were being subjected to a legalised and cruel system of racial domination.''

Those actions had helped bring consensus among New Zealanders.

''In time, this nation and its government could stand tall as one of the most committed supporters of the anti-apartheid cause,'' Mandela said.


Activist John Minto, who was an organiser for the Halt All Racist Tours movement, met Mandela in Auckland.

"One of the things he said was that when he was in prison in 1981 and they heard that the [Springbok tour] game [against Waikato] had been stopped by protest, all the prisoners rattled their doors throughout the jail and he said it was like the sun came out".

Dame Cath Tizard, governor-general at the time, recalled Mandela had told her "he would never forget the day the game at Hamilton was called off".

His presence dominated the Commonwealth heads of government meeting held in Auckland and Queenstown in November that year.

Dame Cath said it was a "marvellous and memorable" pleasure to host him at Government House.

"It's very hard to describe, but the man just carried such mana," she said.

"People almost treated him with reverence. He was a very handsome, pleasant man to deal with."

''When I went out and met him at the airport, we were introduced and he asked, how shall I address you? I said, formally as Your Excellency, but my name is Catherine. He put his arm around my shoulder and from there he called me Catty."


He told about 3000 people at Turangawaewae Marae in Ngaruawahia his visit there was the highlight of his trip.

''We feel truly welcome and among our own brothers and sisters,'' he said.

To be a guest of Maori was a great honour.

"As a people who have known deprivation, we do appreciate your efforts to redeem a past of dispossession and social dislocation that colonialism has wrought on your community.''

His arrival at the marae was greeted by hundreds of children from local schools and kohanga reo lining the road outside. Many clutched palm leaves to wave at the motorcade.

Inside the marae he was treated to a traditional Maori welcome. Obviously moved by the event, Mandela nodded in understanding as Western Maori MP Koro Wetere explained the procedure, NZPA reported.

The official party, which included Mandela's daughter, Zenani Mandela Dlamini, police, and South African news media, were met on the meeting house veranda by Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Hepi Te Heuheu.

In a surprise appearance before more than 250,000 people at a fireworks spectacular at Auckland Domain, he brought the crowd to its feet.

''You make us feel at home in the world,'' he said as the crowd roared its approval. ''For that we thank you, and we thank you again.''

The police officer in charge of escorting Mandela's delegation in Auckland said the South African president had been greeted with an almost religious fervour everywhere he went.

''There was no one in the motorcade who wasn't humbled by the experience,'' Sergeant Sandy Beckett said.

''The first thing he did each time he got into the car was shake hands with the driver - he was a charismatic character.''

Wellington photographer Simon Woolf spent time with Mandela in 1995 and found the experience life-changing.

''Over those 4-1/2 days I think I was literally picking myself up from being uplifted and him being so humble probably dozens of times. There you have a man that's been in such adverse situations and he's turned it into a positive and there didn't seem to be any malice, he was just moving on.

"And there was a guy that would give everybody quality time, it didn't matter who they were. He also didn't prioritise his time in relation to who the personality was. If the prime minister was greeting him and there was a little boy at a barricade, because he'd met the prime minister two days before he'd go over to the boy at the barricade. And nobody minded. It was very uplifting. It was very amazing to see.''

In 2002 New Zealand's prime minister Helen Clark made an emotional and long-awaited political pilgrimage to the Robben Island prison off Cape Town, where Mandela was kept for 18 years.

''I've always wanted to come here and see it,'' Clark, an anti-apartheid protester in earlier years, said standing outside the small, bleak, grey cell where Mandela slept on concrete floors.

''It's unbelievable that a human being could spend 18 years in this cell. When I saw Mandela some days ago, he said looking back on it he couldn't understand himself how he spent 18 years in this cell, under just incredibly inhuman conditions,'' she said.

''But I think what is amazing is that it never broke his spirit, and that's the triumph of the story out of here - that the men walked out with their heads held high.''

Minto said there would be ''widespread sadness'' in New Zealand at his death.

He was the "glue" that held South Africa together amidst "enormous unrest", and his legacy provided more "more opportunity to speak out and fight for better society", he said.