When Tim Shadbolt and thousands of other anti-apartheid protesters disrupted the 1981 Springbok tour, there was no doubt their spiritual leader was Nelson Mandela.

Mr Shadbolt, now Invercargill Mayor, was involved in a number of anti-apartheid movements in the 1970s and 80s, and was in 1976 arrested for charging on to the runway at Wellington Airport to disrupt a flight the whites-only South African rugby team, the Springboks, were on.

But it was the 1981 protests against the Springbok tour that had the greatest impact and Mr Shadbolt, who was a co-founder of the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) movement, said the protesters always had Mandela in their heart.

"That was our main chant, 'free Nelson Mandela', during that whole period. In all the speeches that were made, his name would be mentioned by virtually every speaker," Mr Shadbolt said. "Even though Mandela may not have been the administrative leader at the time, he was our spiritual leader in a way, and he was very inspirational to us. Despite the vast geographical distance between our countries, the New Zealand protesters felt very closely aligned with what was happening in the apartheid struggle," Mr Shadbolt said.


"Running parallel to what was happening in South Africa, we had our own Maori renaissance that was happening with Whina Cooper and the land march and the occupation at Bastion Point.

"And Mandela was the man. He was a bit like Martin Luther King was to the Americans, because we were more closely aligned with South Africa than America."

Mr Shadbolt said Mandela's death aroused a strange combination of emotions.

"There's, of course, great sadness but also there's triumph for the work that he's done for all the people of the world."