By Ed Cropley
QUNU, South Africa (Reuters) - Only a few hours after Nelson Mandela's burial, the skies over South Africa's Eastern Cape grew dark as a storm rolled in, a powerful but, according to locals, positive omen for a young democracy deprived of its founding father.
Whereas in the West lowering clouds portend trouble, in traditional South African culture they are seen as a blessing, the bearers of rain and good fortune, especially at a funeral, where they signify an elder passing peacefully into the bosom of his ancestors.
This is not to say South Africa's future is cloudless.
As a medium-sized emerging economy, it is still being buffeted by the after-effects of the global financial crisis and growth is struggling to recover from a 2009 recession, the first since the end of apartheid in 1994.
It also continues to labor under the peculiar problems left by three centuries of white domination - crime, high unemployment, poor public education and yawning income inequality between whites and blacks.
But the distance traveled in the two decades since Mandela's inauguration as its first black leader and his death aged 95 on December 5 - in essence the end point of South Africa's first post-apartheid generation - is immense and irreversible.
The economy has more than trebled in size, 85 percent of homes have electricity from just over half at the end of apartheid, and the tax base has grown from just 1.7 million whites to 13.7 million from across the racial spectrum.
Furthermore, Mandela, who deliberately served only one term in office, left behind a host of strong institutions, from a free media to an independent judiciary, all underpinned by a progressive and respected constitution.
Like a carefree young man who suddenly loses a father, his death is likely to reinforce the sense that the nation of 53 million must grow up and look to itself for answers rather than turning instinctively to a now-absent figurehead with his reassuring smile, or blaming an apartheid bogeyman.
"We should no longer say it's apartheid's fault," former finance minister Trevor Manuel said in April, unusually frank comments from a big-hitter in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that caused a major stir at the time.
"We should get up every morning and recognize we have responsibility. There is no longer the Botha regime looking over our shoulder. We are responsible ourselves."
VILLAINS, HEROES ARE GONE
Barring one or two mishaps and a restive crowd at a rain-soaked mass memorial in Johannesburg, the hastily arranged 10 days of mourning for Madiba, the clan name by which Mandela was affectionately known, passed off smoothly and with dignity.
Confounding the doom and gloom predictions of a tiny minority of white right-wingers, his death caused no mass hysteria, people still turned up to work and the feared race war failed to materialize.
The rand and stock market were unmoved, while a Mandela 'trauma hotline' stayed idle, reflecting the extent to which South Africa had already come to terms with Mandela's mortality having seen him slide into extreme old age over several years.
Nor did his death leave a direct hole in everyday life, coming nearly a decade after he officially stepped into the shadows in 2004, telling a news conference "Don't call me, I'll call you".
His last appearance in public was more than three years ago, waving to fans from the back of a golf cart at the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg.
As such, the meaning of his death is more symbolic than real.
"Is this the moment that the South African story properly begins?" the Daily Maverick, a political magazine, said in an editorial. "Our Tolkien period is over - our mythical villains and our great heroes are gone, and we have entered another, lesser, but no less important, age."
ZUMA UNDER FIRE
Instead, it may have its most profound effect on the ANC, the 101-year-old former liberation movement that has run South Africa since the end of apartheid but which must now sway voters who have no personal memory of white-minority rule.
With an eye half on history and half on elections in five months, the party seized on his death as a chance to shore up popularity ebbing even in its core support base, South Africa's overwhelming non-white majority.
However, the calculation backfired badly as the intense focus on Mandela's probity and rectitude laid bare the gulf between the nation's first democratically elected president and its fourth, the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma.
In a public humiliation, Zuma, under fire for a $21 million state-funded security upgrade to his private Nkandla home, was booed and jeered at a mass memorial in front of world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama.
The ANC leadership dismissed the episode as a "little blot", but polls suggest public opposition to Zuma, a polygamous Zulu traditionalist with no formal education and a tendency for gaffes, is deep-seated and growing.
A Sunday Times survey of 1,000 registered ANC voters published this week showed 51 percent believe Zuma should resign over the Nkandla scandal, suggesting the party's leader could actually prove a turn-off to voters next year.
"As we move towards next year's elections, the ANC will have to ask itself one central question: has the time come to rid itself of the liability called Jacob Zuma?" the paper said in an editorial accompanying the survey.
The ANC is all but assured of victory next year having won nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2009, but it is riven with ideological and personal differences and its all-important alliance with the unions, forged in the common struggle against apartheid, is crumbling.
Senior figures are asking openly whether Zuma is capable of guiding the country through the complexities of the 21st Century and allowing it to claim what it believes is its rightful place at the world's top table.
In his eulogies to Mandela this week, former president Thabo Mbeki delivered a barely disguised swipe at Zuma, who ousted him unceremoniously as party leader in 2007.
"The transformation of South Africa is a very difficult task, I think in many respects more difficult than the struggle to end the system of apartheid," he said.
"Because we are dealing with this complex situation, that's when we need to raise the level of leadership," he added. "Surely we can't lower the level of leadership."
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)