Jonathan Pain is author of The Pain Report and has 29 years of international investment experience. He was born in South Africa and lived in Lesotho, Swaziland, England, Bahrain and now Australia.

My first memory of racism was as a young boy in a shop in South Africa.

A very elderly African man, who was frail and appeared lost and confused, shuffled through the shop door and paused by the counter to steady himself. The boy behind the cash register shouted at him in Afrikaans, calling him a 'kaffir', among other niceties, and told him to get out.

I remember being shocked at the ferocity of the verbal abuse and I told the teenager he shouldn't speak to the old man like that. He looked at me with venom in his eyes and turned his rage on me. The old man and I soon found ourselves outside the shop and he very quietly said, 'Please baas I don't want any trouble.' His subservience and submissive nature stunned me. And for him to call me boss, when he was in his eighties and I was just eight! That was South Africa in the sixties.

Today, it is sometimes difficult explaining to people exactly how apartheid worked. In essence, it was a system that legalised racial discrimination. It determined which park bench you sat on, the public toilet you used, the hospital you would be taken to and the ambulance which took you there, the school you attended, the job you applied for and the colour of the person you married. It was a tortuously complex program of dehumanisation which gave that young white boy in Bloemfontein a pre-ordained sense of absolute superiority.

To have suggested then that an African could one day be president of South Africa would not only have been considered absurd but would have probably got you locked up as a communist.

But, as I grew older, I became aware of a person who had been locked up for dreaming of a South Africa with no discrimination. Today Nelson Mandela, aged 94, is spending his fifth day in hospital and is responding to treatment. Back then, I attended Waterford-Kamhlaba School in Swaziland with his daughter, Zindzi, and heard her dreams of seeing her father embark on his long walk to freedom.

At Waterford we were encouraged to believe that every person was born equal and that each of us should be given every chance, regardless of our colour, gender or religion.

Many years later, on 11 February 1990, I held my breath, along with so many others, as we awaited that first glimpse of Nelson Mandela emerging after 27 years in prison. Could one man really make a difference? The divisions were surely too deep and the prospect of reconciliation simply unimaginable. South Africa became a place of fear and rumour, with many white South Africans convinced that their servants were going to stab them in the middle of the night in an orchestrated act of revenge. Carving knives were removed from kitchen drawers and bedroom doors were locked at night. Many feared that the streets would run with blood.

As the election approached I had many unpleasant arguments with people who told me with absolute certainty that it was all going to end in civil war and that most whites would never accept a black president. It was simply unthinkable and anyone who suggested that it might actually work was a fool.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in what was to the doomsayers a disappointingly peaceful election. In 1995, he awarded the Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup to the Springbok captain in front of 60,000 adoring fans, many of whom had wanted to shoot him just a year before. In terms of political symbolism, can it get any better than that? It was an act of reconciliation and a significant step in the healing process for this young democratic nation.

There were of course many who made the ultimate sacrifice in their fight for freedom, and others who languished in prisons, one of whom in fact was a girlfriend of mine. Then there was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose daughters I grew up with in Lesotho and went to school with, who never gave up and could never be silenced. His extraordinary tenacity and audacity should also be recorded in the remarkable story of South Africa's long and painful march to freedom. It was an enormous honour to be introduced by the Archbishop at a conference I spoke at last year and I feel humbled today to be asked to write about a man whom I regard as one of the finest leaders in history.

In closing, it is appropriate to quote the following extract from Nelson Mandela's statement at the Rivonia Trial, at which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

During my lifetime...I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

You mean so much to so many of us, and your capacity for forgiveness and sense of humility is a shining example for all humanity. God bless you Nelson Mandela and God bless Africa.

Photo by Flickr user Articularnos.com.