Vassi Naidoo joined Deloitte straight from university in 1977, was partner at 27 and head of his country's biggest accountancy practice by 1998.

Remarkably, the country is South Africa and Naidoo is black.

As the world last weekend pondered the meaning of the predominantly white Springboks rugby team, Vassi Naidoo was busy on his new mission He moved to London last year as Deloitte's global partner for talent, in recognition of his pioneering leadership not only of a firm but of a political model, now legally enshrined in South Africa's "black economic empowerment".

His globetrotting around the £11bn network of national Deloitte partnerships this week brought him briefly to Edinburgh, but Naidoo is still finding time to chair the African Children's Feeding Scheme, which feeds 20,000 children in Johannesburg whose parents have died because of HIV/Aids.

"My wife was brought up by child welfare," he says. (Sheila is a teacher, their two children are accountants, one in Sydney, one training in London, both with Deloitte.) "We felt we had to do something, to put back something into the children."

This unusual chartered accountant is a second-generation South African. He said: "My grandfather came from India to be indentured to a South African sugar company in 1906, my dad was born there, I was born there, I went through all my schooling at the so-called state-aided farm schools, and I did my studying through a segregated Indian university, which was the only kind of university we were allowed to go through in those days. I was fortunate enough to be articled by the firm in 1977."

But it was not plain sailing. "I couldn't get articled for almost a year, and the reason given was that the firm had no toilet block for black people, because it was legislated in the seventies that you had to have separate toilets. When I joined the firm I had to use the toilets used by the teaboy or whoever."

But he goes on: "One of my defining moments in the firm, which is why I have stayed so loyal to the firm, is that when I went to complain about this to the leadership of the firm, the leader was not aware that the toilets had a (whites-only) sign, and he took it down himself and said we can't have that."

In 1983 he became "the first person of colour that was appointed as partner in a big four firm", and admits: "It was pretty tough, because apartheid was at its peak there were difficult moments." But there was also "great support from our client base, and from the leadership of the firm".

His appointment as country chief executive officer came five years into South Africa's democracy, "but it was still not politically correct", Naidoo recalls.

Even now black economic empowerment (BEE), the signature policy of President Thabo Mbeki's government, is criticised for "enriching the few", as it sets targets for the transfer of white-owned assets to black consortia and entrepreneurs.

But Deloitte is not among the critics ("we certainly built a good rapport with the government, our public sector work blossomed") and Naidoo is a strong supporter.

"The economy is in fundamental transformation," he says. "A lot of people say BEE is the bogeyman in South Africa. I don't believe it is, I think it is fundamental in the democratic future of the country."

Many companies (some of them advised by Deloitte) had already set off down the empowerment route, Naidoo explains.

"A lot of them have done it through setting up trusts for the benefit of black employees and communities, which I think is a good model."

But he says that with rights come responsibilities. "The issue I have is when black people are taken into the companies, given the shares at a discounted price, and nothing changes. In my view that is not black economic empowerment I would hope that the black leaders who come through will have a moral and a social obligation to ensure that change takes place and is embraced in the organisation - which is roughly what happened at Deloitte."

Naidoo adds: "I had executive power, I ran the firm, transformed the firm and empowered the people in the organisation. I forced change, and that is the key model."

On taking over, he warned the firm that unless it was in the vanguard of change, it would lose its dominant market position. "In 1997, I proposed a target of having a partner complement of 25% black, and our entire professional and support staff 50% black.

"At the time it was probably around 6% of partners and 22% of staff. Having taken the decision to set these targets, we took a strategy of developing our talent from within. We invested significantly in scholarships and bursaries.

"We felt the education of the local ethnic minorities and the indigenous people in the country was the key. We took a long-term route to developing and nurturing the talent, which fitted our culture and value system.

"At the same time there were a number of black firms that were coming up - the other three firms of the big four used a strategy of merger, we chose not to."

Naidoo observes: "We didn't wait for black economic empowerment to come out in 2004, we started to transform our firm long before it got legislated, and gained a significant amount of first movement advantage in terms of how we embraced change."

The key challenge, he says, was to "manage in balance" the emerging rights of women, gays and lesbians, and blacks or indigenous people, "and white males so everybody felt a part of why we were doing what we were doing".

The tools, he says, were "leadership, trust and communication".

Now in his new post he sees "big lessons for Deloitte" from the South African experience, in how it integrates into the firm the "new emergent talent" coming out of mature immigrant communities in Europe and the US.

"It might be another reason why I was selected to do this job, having done it in South Africa. The old issue of integration is key in places like France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands."

He says the key to harnessing and retaining talent - Deloitte aims to recruit 50,000 new staff over four years - is recognising the generation changes.

"The old way whereby you recruit people, give them some training, and hope to retain them, is not going to work. You are going to have to go in synch with the needs of the new talent force - generations x and y and the millennium generation." (The children of the "baby-boomers" and the next two generations).

"These kids are asking for a lot more stretch in their jobs, I think they are smarter, they learn quicker, they have been taught differently, mainly with the advent of IT."

Naidoo's already global management role has gone into overdrive. "I do a lot more travelling than I would like but I absolutely love my job, I have a passion for the firm and what I do."

True to his roots and his generation, he is happy to admit: " I have never actually worked for anyone else in my life."