Major funerals have been held before in South Africa. After his death in Cape Town, the body of the colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was paraded for a thousand miles across the country by train, the carriage stopping at towns and dorps, no matter how small, so mourners could pay their respects.
And when Steve Biko was murdered under the apartheid regime, tens of thousands of people massed to follow the cortege, risking their lives as they defied heavily armed police who threatened to open fire. But these are as nothing in comparison to what South Africa is about to witness over the next eight days before Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela takes the last stage of his life's journey and is buried next Sunday at his favoured ancestral home in Qunu, deep in the remote Eastern Cape province.
What will make the programme of mourning special will not be the lavish tributes that pour in from all over the world; or the many heads of state who will clear their schedules so they can attend in person; or the fact that parallel memorial events are to be held in all major cities across this nation of 53 million people, with their 11 official languages. What will make the next week unique is that for the first time in South Africa people from all races, faiths, ages and income brackets will grieve as one.
In death, the greatest unifier of modern South Africa will have achieved his greatest feat. Yet when the dust settles over the open patch of veld that comprises the Mandela family burial plot, we who make our homes here will be able to begin answering meaningfully a question that has long been hanging over the country.
Around braais next to sparkling swimming pools, at bars in township shebeens, in newspaper columns and on the airwaves, the same question has been danced around for years: What happens after Mandela? The doomsters - and there are some from all bands of the Rainbow Nation's racial spectrum - predict that without Mandela's presence the country is in for turbulent times.
Some within the white community are worried that Mandela's long commitment to fighting racial dominance, of whichever hue, will be missed. It bears repeating that Mandela did not go to prison for 27 years on the principle that black people must rule South Africa. He, and many of his African National Congress peers, went to prison because they believed the country should not be ruled by just one of the country's many ethnic groups.
"South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white," is how it was expressed so memorably by the Freedom Charter, the de facto mission statement of the ANC that was adopted in 1955, and in which Mandela believed so passionately. With Mandela's passing, pessimists believe that the great defender of the principle of inclusivity will be missed. The rights of the white minority, they argue, will be trampled over as high crime levels and poor job opportunities impact disproportionately on them, and a ruthless, hegemonic black elite ignore their plight. Put crudely, the fear among some white South Africans is that their country is going to become "another Zimbabwe", a country where a black leadership has fiddled elections, manipulated the courts, murdered political opponents and plundered the assets of the country's tax-paying, hard-working white minority.
Other doomsters in South Africa come from a very different place altogether. These are the black long-term unemployed, economically disenfranchised, people deeply angered at the failure of post-apartheid governments to deliver economic improvement. They argue that with Mandela's death an opportunity presents itself to right a wrong from his leadership in the early 1990s, when he gave too much away to appease the white government as the end of apartheid was negotiated. They support political radicals like Julius Malema, a former president of the ANC Youth League - a position once held by Mandela himself - who was kicked out of the party and has bounced back by forming a more militant group, calling itself Economic Freedom Fighters, calling for wholesale nationalisation.
And while they might not be of the same firebrand political character as Malema, others, including Hlumelo Biko, son of Steve, have argued publicly in recent months that what Mandela agreed with the white regime was a "colossal fraud" against the black majority. It follows that Mandela's death provides a chance to re-think the issue, perhaps allowing for windfall taxes on successful - and often white-owned - companies, or even nationalisation. In the face of such two-pronged pessimism it is not surprising that the news of Mandela's death has coincided with some jitteriness on the economic front.
The currency exchange rate, rand to the pound, was as bad on Friday as it has been in five years, passing R17 to the pounds 1. And yet the truth about Mandela is that he has not had more than a symbolic role in South Africa for roughly 15 years. After being elected president in 1994, he handed over political power to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, in 1997 before standing down as president two years later. Since the turn of the century, Mandela has moved far away from the levers of power in South Africa. In the early years he would be seen at the occasional charity event, often with Oprah Winfrey, or a publicity junket, such as his photo opportunity with the Spice Girls. Since 2005, his public appearances dwindled slowly to naught.
But this was not casual time-wasting by an indulgent pensioner. It was a deliberate policy by a very wise and committed party man whose busiest and most demanding years, from the 1940s to the 1990s, were behind him. He knew full well that sniping from the sidelines after standing down could only hurt the party. And he also knew the party and country would have to survive long after him. It was one of this extraordinary man's most prized attributes: that he viewed his country, his people and his party as even more extraordinary. How different an African leader this made him from Mobutu in the Congo, Amin in Uganda, Taylor in Liberia, Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
Mandela could perhaps be criticised for not acting as other senior anti-apartheid-struggle figures have done in holding the ANC to account over recent years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu emerged as the de facto "conscience of the nation", lambasting the ANC for policies he believed to betray its ethos: South Africa's failure to rein in Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Mbeki's muddle-headed thinking on HIV/Aids, the failure to stop party cadres from lining their pockets through corruption.
For Archbishop Tutu the situation reached crisis point earlier this year when he announced he would not be able to vote for the ANC. But Mandela had greater confidence that the structures he and his colleagues put in place in the negotiations that ended apartheid - the checks and balances of the new constitution, an independent judiciary and strong civil society structures based on protecting human rights - would protect all South Africans, whether pessimistic whites or firebrand blacks, better than any individual.
Good decisions will be taken by the ANC in the future and, no doubt, bad ones too, but the trajectory of South Africa will not be adversely impacted by the death of Mandela. He made sure of that by carefully excising himself from power through the last years of his life. Mandela's moderate style of leadership transformed a country that for decades had been run by leaders of such extremist views that they could racially exploit fellow human beings. Such extremism belongs firmly to the past in South Africa and I feel confident it will not return. Only two months ago, a group of white supremacists who called themselves the Boeremag were convicted of a plot some 10 years ago to murder Mandela and drive black people into the sea.
There was a time when such a trial would have commanded front page coverage and interest from the international press, a time when South Africa was framed as a nation through the extremism of apartheid. Back in the 1980s, when I was growing up in Britain, I could get the joke when TV satirists broadcast a song called I've Never Met a Nice South African. And yet when the Boeremag trial finally came to an end there was minimal press interest.
Across South Africa they were regarded not as outriders of some future world, more like dinosaurs from a bygone age preaching an outdated supremacist ideology. In helping to marginalise such people, Mandela has made his country stronger, strong enough to thrive, strong enough to grow and, importantly, strong enough to survive his passing.