Johannesburg: Nelson Mandela once again united South Africans on Sunday as people irrespective of their colour and creed flocked into churches, mosques and temples to mark a `Day of prayers` for the anti-apartheid icon.
The `National Day of Prayer and Reflection` started off an official programme of mourning, including a memorial service at a Johannesburg stadium on Tuesday, culminating in a state funeral on December 15 at Mandela`s Eastern Cape ancestral home of Qunu, expected to be one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders in decades.
At the Bryanston Methodist Church here, President Jacob Zuma, Mandela`s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other members of the Mandela family, including his grandson Mandla, attended a service for Mandela.
Members of the congregation lifted their hands in praise during singing while dozens of children sat on the floor in the front of the church.
Mandela, South Africa`s first black president who steered his nation out of apartheid and into multi-race democracy, died late on Thursday at the age of 95 after protracted illness.
At the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, priest Sebastian Roussouw said Mandela had been "a light in the darkness".
A national memorial service is due to be held on Tuesday and is expected to be the biggest such gathering in recent history with US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle among 80,000 people attending the event at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg that hosted the 2010 World Cup final.
Speaking for the first time after Mandela`s demise, his family expressed their sadness at losing a humble, caring man.
"Tata (father) is gone," family spokesman Temba Matanzima told journalists here yesterday.
"His presence was like a baobab tree that provided a comforting shade that served as protection and security for us," he said.
"The pillar of the family is gone, just as he was away during that 27 painful years of imprisonment."
President Zuma had urged South Africans to go to stadiums, halls, churches, and other places of worship today to remember their leader.
"We should, while mourning, also sing at the top of our voices, dance and do whatever we want to do, to celebrate the life of this outstanding revolutionary who kept the spirit of freedom alive and led us to a new society. Let us sing for Madiba (Mandela`s clan name)," he said.
A government statement recalled the former president`s own thoughts when asked how he wished to be remembered.
"It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered," Mandela had said.
"I`d leave that entirely to South Africans. I would just like a simple stone on which is written, `Mandela`," the world peace icon had said.
The body of Mandela will lie in state at the seat of government, the Union Buildings in the capital Pretoria, from Wednesday to Friday.
On these three days, the coffin will be taken in a cortege through the streets of Pretoria from a mortuary to the place where the body will lie in state.
The state funeral will be held in Mandela`s childhood home, Qunu village in the Eastern Cape, which is expected to be an unprecedented gathering of world leaders.
Among the many world leaders scheduled to attend the funeral are UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister Devid Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
Britain`s Queen Elizabeth II has reluctantly decided not to attend Mandela funeral as she reduces her long-haul travelling. Instead, Prince Charles is expected to fly to South Africa to represent the monarch at the memorial events.
Memorial events for the statesman who dismantled the apartheid regime and served as South Africa`s first black President will also be held across the country during December 11-13.
"We should all work together to organise the most befitting funeral for this outstanding son of our country and the father of our young nation," a statement from the presidency said yesterday.
There will be a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament, the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, tomorrow to honour and commemorate the world peace icon.
Mandela, a lawyer and ex-boxer, spent 27 years in prison, most of them on Robben Island, after being convicted in the Rivonia trial with several others 50 years ago.
He stepped down in 1999 after serving one term as President following the first democratic elections in 1994.
As President, Mandela worked to unite a polarised South Africa dominated by tribal politics. He devoted his energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites with fears of vengeance.
Mandela had been in and out of hospital for the past two years with a range of medical problems. His public appearances became rare but he continued to hold a special place in the consciousness of the nation and the world.