Flags were lowered to half mast as people across South Africa commemorated Nelson Mandela with song, tears and prayers.
The government has prepared funeral ceremonies that will draw leaders and other dignitaries from around the globe.
A black vehicle containing Mr Mandela's coffin, draped in South Africa's flag, pulled away from his home after midnight, escorted by military motorcyclists, to take the body to a military morgue in Pretoria.
As the news of his death at 95 spread across the world, people in the black township of Soweto took to the streets near the house where he once lived, singing and dancing.
Amid the deep sadness at the loss of a man considered by many to be the father of the nation, mourners said it was also a time to celebrate the achievements of the anti-apartheid leader who emerged from prison to lead South Africa.
President Jacob Zuma, dressed in black, announced the news of Mr Mandela's death on television, saying the man known affectionately by his clan name Madiba had died "peacefully" at around 8.50pm surrounded by his family.
"He is now resting. He is now at peace," Mr Zuma said. "Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father."
Many South Africans heard the news of his death upon waking on Friday, and they flocked to his home in Johannesburg's leafy Houghton neighbourhood. One woman hugged her two sons over a floral tribute.
In a church service in Cape Town, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu said the anti-apartheid leader who became South Africa's first black president would want South Africans themselves to be his "memorial" by adhering to the values of unity and democracy that he embodied.
"All of us here in many ways amazed the world, a world that was expecting us to be devastated by a racial conflagration," he said, recalling how Mr Mandela helped unite South Africa as it dismantled apartheid and prepared for all-race elections in 1994.
In closing his prayer, he said: "God, thank you for the gift of Madiba."
Mr Mandela was a "very human person" with a sense of humour who took interest in people around him, said FW de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid-era president. The two men negotiated the end of apartheid, finding common cause in often tense circumstances, and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
In summarising Mr Mandela's legacy, Mr de Klerk said: "Never and never again should there be in South Africa the suppression of anyone by another."
South Africa's banking association said banks will close on the day of Mandela's funeral. The government has yet to announce a detailed schedule for a mourning period that is expected to last more than a week.
The liberation struggle icon's grandson, Mandla Mandela, said he was strengthened by the knowledge that his grandfather was finally resting.
"All that I can do is thank God that I had a grandfather who loved and guided all of us in the family," Mandla Mandela said in a statement. "The best lesson that he taught all of us was the need for us to be prepared to be of service to our people."
He said the late statesman was the embodiment of strength, struggle, and survival. As a grandfather Mr Mandela would always be remembered as kind-hearted, generous and wise.
Mandla Mandela expressed gratitude for the national and international support his family had received during Mr Mandela's long health problems.
"We in the family recognise that Madiba belongs not only to us but to the entire world. The messages we have received since last night have heartened and overwhelmed us."
Zelda la Grange, Mr Mandela's personal assistant for almost two decades, said the elder statesman inspired people to forgive, reconcile, care, be selfless, tolerant, and to maintain dignity no matter what the circumstances.
"His legacy will not only live on in everything that has been named after him, the books, the images, the movies. It will live on in how we feel when we hear his name, the respect and love, the unity he inspired in us as a country, but particularly how we relate to one another," she said in a statement.
Helen Zille, leader of the country's official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and premier of the Western Cape, the only province not controlled by the ANC, commented: "We all belong to the South African family - and we owe that sense of belonging to Madiba. That is his legacy. It is why there is an unparalleled outpouring of national grief at his passing. It is commensurate with the contribution he made to our country."
Later, Mr Zuma said Mr Mandela will be buried on Sunday, December 15.
The president also said that a memorial service in a Johannesburg stadium will be held for the anti-apartheid leader on Tuesday.
Mr Zuma said that Mr Mandela's body will lie in state at government buildings in Pretoria from Wednesday until the burial.
He said this coming Sunday will be a national day of prayer and reflection.
The White House said President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will travel to South Africa next week to pay their respects to Mr Mandela.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obamas will participate in memorial events, but did not say specifically what day they planned to be in South Africa.