NELSON Mandela was a name I'd heard on the news and being discussed by my parents and their friends in the late 1980s and into 1990 - the year when he was freed.

But we never learned about him in history classes until after 1994.

I was 11 years old when he walked out of the main gate at Victor Verster Prison and I didn't quite understand the significance of what I was seeing.

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But still I watched the TV, rather than go out and play in the summer heat.

Every channel - although there were only two back then - showed the footage with commentary in English and Afrikaans.

I remember struggling to understand why a man coming out of prison was being cheered. To a child, prison is a place where only bad people go.

But the tone of my parents' discussion in the living room of our house in Durban made it clear that this man was a hero, not a criminal.

Those images will live with me forever, as will many other moments involving President Mandela.

My last year of primary school, in 1991, saw the first non-white pupil come to my school.

His name was Andile and he was the only black pupil out of about 400.

I remember my mother crying next to me at the annual prize-giving when Andile was named Dux of Penzance Primary School. He scored higher than anyone else in almost every subject.

I went to high school in 1992 and in the space of a year, many more non-white pupils had moved to traditionally "white" schools.

Every day we'd sing the national anthem at morning assembly. At first, we sang 'Die Stem van Suid-Afrika' (The Call of South Africa) - the apartheid era hymn.

Then one day, around the time of the first free elections in 1994, our vice principal Mr Bell handed out a sheet of paper with the words to Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa), a Zulu poem that was to be the new anthem.

Eventually, it was merged with Die Stem and incorporated lines in the English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho languages to become, for my money at least, the most beautiful national anthem anywhere in the world.

It was Mandela who insisted Die Stem was not scrapped altogether. That gesture was one of many that made the white population believe they still had a future in the new South Africa.

He openly supported the once hated Springbok rugby team and he raised the hand of his predecessor F W de Klerk in public, showing solidarity with all South Africans.

He had a hand in the design of the new South African flag, ensuring it featured the colours of all the main political parties. While others in the ANC - the party that would win the 1994 election in a landslide - were working to set up the first democratic government, Madiba (his tribe name) was the man who convinced the world that the Rainbow Nation could become a reality.

In April 1994, all South Africans got the chance to vote and they elected Mandela as president. I lived across the road from my high school, which was used as a polling station.

From first light until well into the night, the voters queued for miles past our house for their chance to cast their vote.

None of these memories would exist without Madiba's stubborn determination to include all South Africans in his dream of the Rainbow Nation.

South Africa, and the world, will miss him terribly.