As the country's 52 million people absorbed the news that their beloved former president had departed forever, many expressed shock at the passing of a man who was a global symbol of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.
South Africans heard from President Jacob Zuma late on Thursday that the statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate died peacefully at his Johannesburg home in the company of his family after a long illness.
Despite reassurances from public figures that Mandela's passing, while sorrowful, would not halt South Africa's advance away from its bitter apartheid past, some still expressed unease about the absence of a man famed as a peacemaker.
"It's not going to be good, hey! I think it's going to become a more racist country. People will turn on each other and chase foreigners away," said Sharon Qubeka, 28, a secretary from Tembisa township as she headed to work in Johannesburg.
"Mandela was the only one who kept things together," she said.
Flags flew at half mast as South Africa entered a period of mourning leading up to a planned state funeral for its first black president next week.
Trade was halted for five minutes on the Johannesburg stock exchange, Africa's largest bourse, out of respect.
But the mood was not all sombre. Hundreds filled the streets around Mandela's home in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, many singing songs of tribute and dancing.
The crowd included toddlers carrying flowers, domestic workers still in uniform and businessmen in suits.
Many attended church services, including another veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu. He said that like all South Africans he was "devastated" by Mandela's death.
"Let us give him the gift of a South Africa united, one," Tutu said, holding a mass in Cape Town's St George's Cathedral. An avalanche of tributes continued to pour in for Mandela, who had been ailing for nearly a year with a recurring lung illness dating back to the 27 years he spent in apartheid jails, including the notorious Robben Island penal colony.
US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among world leaders who paid tributes to him as a moral giant and exemplary beacon.
The loss was also keenly felt across the African continent.
"We are in trouble now, Africa. No one will fit Mandela's shoes," said Kenyan teacher Catherine Ochieng, 32.
Politicians now "nothing like Mandela"
For South Africa, the death of its most beloved leader comes at a time when the nation, which basked in global goodwill after apartheid ended, has been experiencing labour unrest, growing protests against poor services, poverty, crime and unemployment and corruption scandals tainting Zuma's rule.
Many saw today's South Africa - the African continent's biggest economy but also one of the world's most unequal - still distant from being the "Rainbow Nation" ideal of social peace and shared prosperity that Mandela had proclaimed on his triumphant release from prison in 1990.
"I feel like I lost my father, someone who would look out for me," said Joseph Nkosi, 36, a security guard from Alexandra township in Johannesburg.
Referring to Mandela by his clan name, he added: "Now without Madiba I feel like I don't have a chance. The rich will get richer and simply forget about us. The poor don't matter to them. Look at our politicians, they are nothing like Madiba."
The crowd around Mandela's home in Houghton preferred to celebrate his achievement in bringing South Africans together.
For 16-year-old Michael Lowry, who has no memory of the apartheid system that ended in 1994, Mandela's legacy means he can have non-white friends. He attended two schools where Mandela's grandchildren were also students.
"I hear stories that my parents tell me and I'm just shocked that such a country could exist. I couldn't imagine just going to school with just white friends," Lowry said.
Shortly after the news of Mandela's death, Tutu had tried to calm fears that the absence of the man who steered South Africa to democracy might revive some of the ghosts of apartheid.
"To suggest that South Africa might go up in flames – as some have predicted - is to discredit South Africans and Madiba's legacy," Tutu said in a statement on Thursday.
"The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day and the next ... It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on," Tutu said.
May hurt ANC in long term
Zuma and his ruling African National Congress face presidential and legislative elections next year which are expected to reveal discontent among voters about pervasive poverty and unemployment 20 years after the end of apartheid.
But the former liberation movement is expected to maintain its predominance in South African politics.
Mark Rosenberg, Senior Africa Analyst at the Eurasia Group, said that while Mandela's death might even give the ANC a sympathy-driven boost for elections due next year, it would hurt the party in the long term.
He saw Mandela's absence "sapping the party's historical legitimacy and encouraging rejection by voters who believe the ANC has failed to deliver on its economic promises and become mired in corruption."
Mandela rose from rural obscurity to challenge the might of white minority rule - a struggle that gave the 20th century one of its most respected and loved figures.
He was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid in 1960 but was quick to preach reconciliation and forgiveness when the white minority began easing its grip on power 30 years later.
He was elected president in landmark all-race elections in 1994 after helping to steer the racially divided country towards reconciliation and away from civil war.
Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, an honour he shared with FW de Klerk, the white Afrikaner president who released him in 1990. Reacting to his death, the Nobel Committee said Mandela would remain one of the greatest ever prizewinners.
In 1999, Mandela handed over power to younger leaders better equipped to manage a modern economy - a rare voluntary departure from power cited as an example to African leaders.
This made him an exception on a continent with a bloody history of long-serving autocrats and violent coups.
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