Key Points:

For a man who spent 12 years breaking stones with a 2kg hammer as a prisoner on Robben Island, Mac Maharaj is surprisingly philosophical.

"It was the best education I could get," he told the Herald yesterday.

"You guys pay university fees, and I got it free of charge with meals provided and accommodation."

Mr Maharaj was a political prisoner and shared a cell section with Nelson Mandela.

Despite the hard labour, he described the time as a privilege, as he was "taught and guided" by Mandela.

Yesterday he described a 1965 incident as an "eye-opener". General Pierre Steyn (South African Chief of Defence Staff) visited and Mandela took up the prisoners' complaints.

"The General said: 'Mandela, you need to remember you are a prisoner, a convict. You must know your place'.

"Mandela responded: 'You are the commander on the opposite side and I am the commander on this side. But General, even after we have fought it out and reduced our country to ashes, there will be need for you and I to eat. It doesn't matter who wins and who loses, but we will have to do that, at least for one of us to accept defeat. And when that day arrives, the quality will depend on how we treat each other now'."

Mr Maharaj had some advice for NZ. "No matter how you resolve these issues of multiculturalism here, you need to appreciate that your attempts to build an enduring race is going to be your contribution to the world to learn about other cultures and religions, not just for your own country."

In 1976, Maharaj smuggled Nelson Mandela's letters and memoirs off Robben Island. He is in Auckland promoting the book containing copies of the letters.