This racially charged country that, on Nelson Mandela's watch, inspired the world by embracing reconciliation in all-race elections in 1994 is again in the global spotlight after the loss of such a towering historical figure. It is a time not just for grief and gratitude, but also a clear-eyed assessment of national strengths and shortcomings in a future without a man who was a guide and comfort to so many.
"It's a new beginning," said Kyle Redford, one of many outside the home of the anti-apartheid leader who became the nation's first black president. "The loss of a legend is going to force us to come together once again."
He acknowledged that there is a "sense of what next: Where do we go? What do we do? And how do we do it?"
Mandela's resolve rubbed off on many of his compatriots, though such conviction is tempered by the reality that his vision of a "rainbow nation" failed, almost inevitably, to meet the heady expectations propelling the country two decades ago. Peaceful elections and relatively harmonious race relations define today's South Africa; so do crime, corruption and economic inequality.
Mandela remained a powerful symbol in the hopeful, uncharted period after apartheid, even when he left the presidency, retired from public life and shuttled in and out of hospitals as a protracted illness eroded his once-robust frame. He became a moral anchor, so entwined with the national identity that some jittery South Africans wondered whether the country would slide into chaos after his death.
"Does it spell doomsday and disaster for us?" retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu asked rhetorically Friday before declaring that no, the country will not disintegrate.
"The sun will rise tomorrow and the next day and the next," said Tutu, who like Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting apartheid and promoting reconciliation. "It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on."
A series of violent events since last year intensified worries over the state of the nation. The August 2012 shooting deaths of 34 striking miners by police at the Marikana platinum mine recalled, for some South Africans, state killings under apartheid. In February, a Mozambican taxi driver was dragged from a South African police vehicle and later died in a jail cell.
At the same time, tourism surged. Despite labor strife and credit-rating downgrades, resource-rich South Africa hosted Brazil, Russia, India and China at the "BRICS" summit in March. It has the biggest economy in Africa and aspires to continental leadership.
Mandela's death will not destabilize race relations in the country, contrary to some fears, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations.
"For many years now, South Africans have got along with one another largely peacefully without Mr. Mandela having been active in the political sphere," Lerato Moloi, the institute's head of research, said. "In fact, Mr. Mandela's passing may be cause for many to reflect on the remarkably peaceful and swift racial integration of many parts of society, including schools, suburbs, universities, and workplaces."
Moloi said in a statement: "Although some of this had started to occur before 1994, as a symbol of racial reconciliation and forgiveness Mr. Mandela will be viewed by many as having played a pivotal role in creating such a society."
Mandela's life epitomized the fight for freedom and equality, said Human Rights Watch. It pointed out that South Africa's education and health sectors are inadequate and the country remains divided by racial separation and deep economic inequality.
"Almost two decades into its democracy, South Africa is not the country that Mandela had said he hoped it would become," the group said.
President Jacob Zuma evoked the idea of the 95-year-old Mandela as a beacon for the ages when he announced his death on Thursday night.
South Africans, Zuma said, must be determined "to live as Madiba has lived, to strive as Madiba has strived and to not rest until we have realized his vision of a truly united South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa, and a better world."
Mandela, also known by his clan name Madiba, admitted to weakness and failings, yet rose to greatness in a way that no contemporary or successor could match.
Zuma, for example, has credentials as an anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned with Mandela. But he and the ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, have been dogged by corruption allegations that have eroded support for the government. In the days before Mandela's death, South African media were filled with reports on the alleged lavish use of state funds for construction at Zuma's family compound.
The scene outside Mandela's house embodied the mixed picture in South Africa, where political sparring between the ruling party and the opposition has sharpened ahead of national elections next year, the 20th anniversary of the pivotal vote in which Mandela became president.
Mourners outside the home mingled in an inclusive, celebratory atmosphere that prompted the Rev. Inigo Alvarez, a Catholic priest, to declare: "Now we experience what is South Africa, all kinds of people, all kinds of regions."
Yet ANC activists in yellow jumpsuits pasted posters on the perimeter walls of the Mandela compound and handed out leaflets presenting the party as the heir to his tradition. In death, Mandela was still drawn into politics.