HANOVER VILLAGE, South Africa - It's a death in the family. A family of millions who call him "Tata," "Our Father."

There is no person here in South Africa who is not affected by Nelson Mandela's passing, even those who opposed him. Although many South Africans on all levels were an important part of that achievement, the nation's bold course, embracing transformation from a desperate, dark past, could not have happened without him.

Sadly, the shoes of Madiba - his clan name - remain empty. Is that because there never will be anyone who can measure up to him, or are we simply still waiting? Patience, a sign of optimism of the oppressed, has been my greatest challenge since I moved here in 1997. It's as foreign to an American as the Xhosa languages that sound like a typewriter on drugs. It assumes - it believes - it knows - that sooner or later, the object of prayers will happen.

February 1990. Bishops Court, the residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cape Town.

I expect a fist-pumping, shouting, Castro-style revolutionary. Instead, after less than 24 hours of freedom, he sits in a carved wood chair with the colors of the African National Congress behind him and radiates good cheer as he speaks quietly, politely but firmly, about his intentions for radical change. When a reporter stands to ask a question and gives his name, Mandela says, "Ah, yes, Mr. Jolidon, how are you today?" He has read their stories, he remembers their names. And if this were not a news conference, he would inquire about their families as well.

Because that's the African thing to do.

He wears a fine blue-gray suit, and is poised to take leadership of the most powerful country on the continent and become a world statesman. His posture is upright. He is not bowed and he is not bitter.

When the press conference ends and Madiba gets up to leave, the reporters do something I have never seen before or since. They stand and applaud him.

It is only later that I understand beneath the fine suit was the barefoot boy who enjoyed stick fighting and tended cattle in the hills of knee-high grass and bright-red soil on the other side of the country. Later on, when he was sent to school, Mandela had found the transition to wearing boots and eating with cutlery awkward, like his awkwardness with girls.

He was not a boy who had dreams of greatness as it has been defined by his public life. He embraced his lineage of African royalty and knew he had to fulfill the expectations that came with that. That was different from becoming the first black and democratically elected president of South Africa; it was a moral responsibility to his community and his family and his ancestors. Neither apartheid nor power could destroy that commitment.

Those hills and villages of round mud houses with grass roofs remain today, and there are barefoot boys still tending cattle there, almost like a museum of his culture. When all that has been paved over and exploited for tourism, the thorn-tree kraals replaced by garages, one wonders where the secrets behind his greatness will reside.

After his release from prison, Madiba chose to return to his childhood home of Qunu, where he had spent the happiest days of his youth. He held family events at the house he built on the Mandela homestead. He asked to be buried there.

During his earlier years as president, when he stayed at Qunu, he would escape security and go to the village high school, where he would disrupt classes and sit down with the students and tell them what life in their village was like when he was a boy. He encouraged them to value education. They loved him, running to him, cheering, "Madiba! Madiba!" when they saw him approaching.

The South Africa I know remains a land of contrasts. It's donkey carts sharing the road with BMWs, women walking on modern city streets with large bundles balanced on their heads. It's a construction crew that communicates in three languages. The sun shines while it rains; rainbows are the result.

Modern Africans claim that they are moving away from the tribal customs that were the glue to isolated traditional villages, that the practice of barefoot boys tending cattle is something to be eradicated - perhaps for good reason, as many of those boys tend cattle in lieu of continuing their education. Yet, because the wealth of a man is still determined by the number of cows he owns, there will always be the need for them to be tended.

The payment of lobola, or bride price, treats women as property and some believe it should also be abolished, yet it remains custom all the way to the top. Mandela paid a large lobola for his now-widow, Graca Machel.

Young Xhosa still flock to the bush to be ceremonially circumcised in order that they can be called men. More are dying from the experience these days, because the circumcision schools have been corrupted by practitioners who do not follow proper procedure.

The tradition of multiple wives still prevails in some cultures; President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, has four wives.

Many of the new suits who have migrated to the automated square houses behind razor-wire walls in the cities load their families into their BMWs and every Christmas return to the villages, and the grannies who raised them, where they renew connection to their roots. Families gather in the thorny kraals and slaughter goats as messages to the ancestors, who protect them from hardship as long as they behave.

A person who has had bad things happen is assumed to have offended the ancestors. Some still consult traditional healers, whose skills include combating evil spirits that create havoc in people's lives, and ensuring that the next born will be a son, or that one will win the lottery. Others go to witch doctors, because they believe someone, a witch, has cast an evil spell upon them. The best educated still send their sons back for traditional initiation rituals.

South Africa today is not what any of us who watched for the freedom train expected. It's painful watching the pillaging by government and corporate officials and police. I pray that Madiba did not know about these things. He had his own brush with this disappointment when he had to cancel the annual children's party he held at his Qunu home every Christmas. It became a mob scene after a few years, and the worst offenders were the adults grabbing the gifts that had been intended for the children.

Yet I still see Madiba's spirit in the faces of my everyday heroes, because that's where he started. It's the African great-grandmother who recently could not tell me for sure how many children she has raised, including those she raises now, like counting the number of dishes she has washed. It's the courageous young woman who exposes her HIV status to the world to help others avoid contracting the virus. It's the man who makes the agonizing decision to refuse to post bail for a son who has been charged with murder, knowing his son has been violent before, and worrying that he might hurt someone else if released. It's in the everyday people who still live lives of unforgivable hardship and continue to maintain dignity and amazing generosity.

Madiba's legacy is peace. Before 1990, peace had become an empty political slogan. When Mandela walked out of prison, shook hands with his jailer, and embarked on a course of reconciliation, peace became a reality. The world watched in a tearful, hopeful need to believe.

It can be done. Peace happens.

Ubuntu is the African concept of humanity to others. It means "I am what I am because of who we all are."

We are, because he was.

We can be, because he is ancestor to our family.

We can be great, not as a nation, but as a people. Madiba opened that door. He shone the light in that direction, he walked ahead and turned on the sun, over there, like the brilliant light that shoots through the billowing clouds at the end of the day.

It's not Madiba's shoes that need to be filled; it's his footprints in the red African dust that await the right pair of African feet to continue their journey.

They can be of any color because we are a nation of rainbows, even when it rains.

Thank you, Madiba.

"Hamba kamnandi." Walk forward well.

Susan Winters Cook, an award-winning photographer formerly at the Philadelphia Daily News, began covering South Africa in 1988 and was there for Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990. Since 1997, she has lived on a farm in the Eastern Cape province, where she has documented the AIDS crisis in South Africa and development projects in rural Eastern Cape and Cape Town. She is the author of "Nozuko's Story."