News that New Zealand's anti-apartheid protests brought hope to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island is likely the most important memory New Zealanders have of the South African leader, veteran activist John Minto says.

Mr Minto, who was one of the leaders of anti-apartheid protests during the 1981 Springbok tour, met Mr Mandela during the president's visit to New Zealand in 1995.

Mr Minto heard of his death last night, after returning from a three-day tramp.

Looking back at Mr Mandela's relationship with New Zealand, Mr Minto pointed to one significant moment the leader shared with Dame Cath Tizard during his 1995 visit.


He told Dame Cath that when prisoners on Robben Island heard protests had forced the Waikato-Springbok game to be called off, it was ``like the sun came out''.

"I think that all those New Zealanders who got bashed by police, who got beaten up by pro-tour thugs and who went to hospital, who went to jail, and even the 12 brave people who marched in Nelson in 1981 - all those people can take real credit for the fact that in the darkest days of apartheid, little old New Zealand was able to punch a hole in the system and let some light through,'' Mr Minto said.

"It is probably the most poignant memory [of Mr Mandela] for New Zealand''.

Visiting Nelson Mandela's Robben Island cell three years ago also showed how crucial New Zealand's contribution had been all those years ago, he said.

"In 2009, I stood in that cell and just to feel the power of him saying something like that from that tiny little prison cell; that's how the light had come in.''

While Mr Mandela was a great leader who inspired a generation, there were many areas where as president he fell short, Mr Minto said.

"He was a great leader and he deserves the many accolades that are coming to him.

"But, I think we have to realise that the South Africa he left today is one where the black majority is no better off than they were under the old apartheid regime, economically and socially.''

Mr Minto said he was not planning to travel to South Africa for the funeral, and would send his condolences to Mr Mandela's family later today.

Read our full coverage on Nelson Mandela.