Nelson Mandela mourners danced and sang at a memorial service for the former leader in Wellington today.

About 3000 turned up to hear dignitaries, religious leaders and fellow countrymen pay tribute to the former freedom fighter.

It was the first of four services, with others to be held in Christchurch today and Auckland and Hamilton tomorrow.

Amongst today's speakers was the South African High Commissioner to New Zealand, Zodwa Laille, who said she would not be here today were it not for Mandela.


"When you look at the South African High Commission and see it led by a black woman who had no chance of ever representing her country in an official capacity, but does so today because she stands on the shoulders of the giant Nelson Mandela.''

The audience were led in song and dance by African drummer Sam Manzanza.

"If you can talk, you can sing,'' he said.

Speakers from diverse political and religious backgrounds were invited to speak at the service, to reflect Mandela's legacy of inclusion.

The Very Reverend John Murray said Mandela stood for "human freedom against human slavery and arrogance''.

"Let our tears flow, for Mandela is dead. His life is over and his work is done, his long journey has come to an end.''

Former race relations conciliator Gregory Fortuin paid tribute to an "extraordinary ordinary man''.

"Tata (father) Mandela will remain our moral compass and our beacon of hope.''

He belonged to eternity, Mr Fortuin said.

"Hopefully you and I will never again turn a convenient blind eye to discrimination and injustice. The baton has been passed, now the responsibility rests with us.''

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said Mandela's story was an incredible one.

"Not least for his 27-year imprisonment, where he would have been comforted by the certainty of his cause and its eventual success.''

But the most remarkable aspect of Mandela was his decision to pursue a peaceful reconciliation and not focus on retribution after 46 years of apartheid, Mr Joyce said.

"It is sometimes not what you do, but what you don't do that can have the most profound effect.''

Former Labour Party leader David Shearer said while in prison, Mandela came to understand his enemy.

"He killed apartheid with kindness.''

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said Mandela stood as a "candle of hope inspiring us to believe in a better future''.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown described him as a "great totara''.

"The totara has fallen and its seeds of thought have grown strongly around the world.''

Afrikaaner Philip Langenhoven spoke of what life in South Africa was like during the apartheid years and while Mandela was imprisoned.

It was illegal for photos or material to be published of Mandela, so for years, Mr Langenhoven did not realise he existed.

"It wasn't until I was a young adult that someone convinced me to commit the heinous crime of illegally looking at a photo of him. I joined the rest of the world in knowing what he looked like,'' Mr Langenhoven said.

"I will always respect Madiba for choosing the most difficult of pathways as I see it, and for sticking to it. The pathway of reconciliation and forgiveness and peace.''


Services venues and times:

* Christchurch

Cardboard Cathedral, today 5.30pm;

* Auckland

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, Friday, 12pm; and

* Hamilton

Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia, Friday, 4pm