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As dawn broke and commuters headed to work, many expressed shock at news of the death of a man who was a global symbol of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.
President Jacob Zuma announced late on Thursday (South African time) the former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate died peacefully at his Johannesburg home in the company of his family after a long illness.
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Despite reassurances from leaders and public figures that Mr Mandela's death would not halt South Africa's advance away from its bitter apartheid past, some still expressed a sense of unease about the physical 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.
''Mandela was the only one who kept things together.''
Flags flew at half-mast as South Africa entered a period of mourning leading up to a planned state funeral next week.
Many attended church services, including another veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, former archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu. He said that like all South Africans he was ''devastated'' by Mr Mandela's death.
''Let us give him the gift of a South Africa united, one,'' Bishop Tutu said, holding a Mass in Cape Town's Anglican St George's Cathedral.
An avalanche of tributes continued to pour in for Mr 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.
United States President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among world leaders and dignitaries who paid tribute to him as a moral giant and exemplary beacon for the world.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Mr Mandela was inspirational.
''Nelson Mandela will be remembered for being an incredibly inspirational leader,'' he said.
''Someone that was a beacon of hope for the people of South Africa but someone that also believed passionately in reconciliation.''
New Zealanders had great admiration for him, Mr Key said.
But for South Africa, the loss of its most beloved leader comes at a time when the nation, which basked in global goodwill after apartheid ended, has been experiencing bloody labour unrest, growing protests against poor services, poverty, crime and unemployment and corruption scandals tainting Mr Zuma's rule.
Many saw today's South Africa still distant from being the ''Rainbow Nation'' ideal of social peace and shared prosperity that Mr Mandela had proclaimed on his triumphant release from prison in 1990.
Just hours after the news, Bishop Tutu sought to assuage fears the absence of Mr Mandela might revive some of the violent 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,'' Bishop Tutu said in a statement.
''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.''