In a televised address on Thursday night, the country's president Jacob Zuma said: "Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.
"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."
The ailing former leader had retired from public life almost a decade ago, having been vulnerable to respiratory problems since contracting tuberculosis during his 27 years of incarceration.
Mr Mandela was jailed in 1964, having been found guilty of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow his country's government, given his role as an anti-apartheid activist.
The first 18 years of his life sentence were spent on Robben Island, either in a tiny, sparse cell or working in a quarry. Later years would see him serve time in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and then Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.
An international campaign for his freedom was mounted while he was in prison, but it was not until 1990 that Mr Mandela finally walked free.
Addressing a mass rally in Cape Town, he called for the moment to be seized "so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted".
We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait.
Nelson Mandela, 1990
He ended his historic speech with the same words he had spoken during his trial 27 years earlier.
"They are true today as they were then," he said.
"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.
"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.
"But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Just months after his release, Mr Mandela travelled to the Republic of Ireland and addressed the Dáil Éireann, where he afterwards received a standing ovation.
"I must first apologise because I have over the last day or two developed a heavy cold," he began.
"But the stirring reception we have received, both from the Government and the people of Ireland, has warmed my heart and every vessel in my body."
Mr Mandela has also long been a supporter of peace in Northern Ireland, having met with many key figures since his release from prison.
"The fact that the process has started and has come so far shows the fundamental importance of peace has been recognised," he said back in 2000, after being awarded an honorary degree at Trinity College in Dublin.
While Mr Mandela has been renounced as a terrorist and communist sympathiser by his critics, he has also been widely hailed for his role as an advocate of peace - with his many awards including the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
In 1994, Mr Mandela made his inaugural speech as South Africa's first black president and the first to be democratically elected.
"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another," he said, speaking in Pretoria.
The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.
Nelson Mandela, 1994.
Mr Mandela held the presidency until 1999.
While welfare spending increased dramatically under Mr Mandela's administration and many improvements were made to living conditions, it had inherited a country were wealth and resources were deeply divided between communities.
Issues such as the HIV/Aids pandemic and the crime rate - one of the worst in the world - remained largely unaddressed. Corruption also proved a major problem.
Mr Mandela stepped aside as president of the ANC in 1997 to be succeeded by his deputy Thabo Mbeki, who also replaced him as president of South Africa in 1999.
From 2004, Mr Mandela claimed that he was "retiring from retirement" and largely retreated from public life due to his failing health.
He did, however, mark in 90th birthday which was celebrated across the world in 2008 and made a rare appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup - having successfully campaigned for it to be held in South Africa.
In March of this year, he was hospitalised in Pretoria over his recurring lung infection - the same condition which later led to him being readmitted to hospital in June.
Tributes to the 95-year-old, who is being remembered as the most respected political leader of all time, have been made around the globe.
US President Barack Obama said the world has lost an influential, courageous and "profoundly good" man.
He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.
Mr Obama added: "Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us.
"He achieved more than can be expected of any one man. I cannot imagine my own life without Mandela's example and so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him."
Prime Minister David Cameron said "a great light has gone out in the world".
He continued: "Nelson Mandela was a towering figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death - a true global hero.
"My heart goes out to his family - and to all in South Africa and around the world whose lives were changed through his courage."
First Minister Peter Robinson tweeted: "Passing of Nelson Mandela is a massive loss for South Africa. A true world figure. Had the privilege of meeting him several times."
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tweeted: "So sad to hear our dear friend #NelsonMandela, freedom fighter, peace maker & reconciler has died. #Madiba".
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: "His enduring legacy will be one of hope, even in the most difficult of circumstances. That sentiment unites us all."
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "As President his respect for others and his humanity was an inspiration to all and helped smooth South Africa's transition to democracy. He was an iconic figure and a symbol of hope for many people throughout the world."
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: "As we mark his passing, we give thanks for the gift of Nelson Mandela.
"We ask that his spirit continues to inspire, guide and enlighten us as we strive to bring freedom and dignity to the family of man, our brothers and sisters, across the world."
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.