Some 500,000 visitors from around the world, with battalions of print and TV journalists, will descend on South Africa for six weeks, as games are played in cities around the country.
They will find an integrated, multi-racial society that is a far cry from the horrors that once beset the country under apartheid.
They also may very well face a nation whose leadership is in question, and whose future direction is uncertain.
This is the consequence of a shake-up in recent days that has toppled the moderate post-apartheid leadership of Nelson Mandela, and his successor Thabo Mbeki, and introduced Jacob Zuma as the probable new president to assume office in 2009.
Like Mr. Mandela and Mr. Mbeki, Mr. Zuma was imprisoned by apartheid's white supremacy government, although for fewer years than Mandela's 27 behind bars. But whereas Mandela emerged amazingly unembittered, and preached reconciliation with South Africa's white minority, Zuma, president of the African National Congress (ANC), is a forceful trade unionist whose charisma sits well with the militant left wing of the organization. The ANC received the lion's share of credit for bringing apartheid down and now, although linked in an alliance with unions and an ineffectual Communist party, basically controls the government.
In the years after the demise of apartheid, Mandela, as president, preached racial harmony at home and achieved international stature as a statesman of wisdom and vision. When he stepped down in 1999, Mbeki, although far less glamorous, became a reliable successor to extend the Mandela era of moderation.
Zuma is far more controversial. His sexual escapades have made headlines. He has been formally charged with corruption, although a judge recently cleared him on procedural, not substantive, grounds. Should charges against him be renewed, that might complicate but not necessarily deny his ascendancy to the presidency next year. Following Mbeki's ouster by the ANC last month, the ANC installed its deputy leader, Kgalema Motlanthe, as a caretaker president until 2009 elections.
South Africa is the most industrialized nation on the African continent. It is rich in gold and diamonds. An black middle class has emerged and prospered under black political rule.
But many more millions, who perhaps had unrealistic expectations of what the transition from white to black rule would mean for them, remain in primitive housing, without electricity, and without jobs. One consequence has been a shocking crime wave in which disappointed African have-nots seize cars and household possessions from the haves, both black and white.
It has been my good fortune to have connections with South Africa and great South Africans for many years.
When I was a boy in Britain during World War II, my father venerated Jan Christiaan Smuts, the Afrikaner leader who brought South Africa into the war on the allied side over the objections of some of his fellow Afrikaners. Our family was commanded to silence whenever Smuts spoke on the BBC.
After the war, as a teenager fresh from England, I was drilled by my first editor, Alex Hammond. He was a white South African who believed becoming a journalist was rather like entering the priesthood ("You will live, breathe, dream this newspaper, and maybe we can make a journalist of you.")
Years later, as a foreign correspondent covering South Africa in the apartheid era, I would stroll with Alan Paton, the famous author of "Cry, the Beloved Country," through his exquisite flower-filled garden, as he talked of his hopes for a South Africa he would never see.
When I left Africa for another assignment, I went to say goodbye to Albert Luthuli, the then ANC leader, at his home in Zululand. He was a man of remarkable compassion and peace, despite the indignities to which he had been subjected. "How will it go?" I asked. Sadly, he told me that while he sought accommodation with the white regime, he could not much longer restrain his young black men from violence.
Then there was Stanley Uys, the country's leading political journalist, who deplored the excesses of his fellow Afrikaners. He had a wry sense of humor. Our phone conversations were monitored by the police Special Branch and Stan delighted in giving them ridiculously misleading information.
And Aggrey Klaaste, editor of the largest black newspaper, who dreamed that one day South Africa would become the industrial and economic engine for raising up all of Africa.
South Africa has come far down the road to multiracial concord and promise that such men hoped to see. It would be tragedy indeed if new leaders made us again cry for the beloved country.