Johannesburg - South Africans were to gather in churches, mosques, temples and synagogues on Sunday to remember Nelson Mandela, whose message of peace and reconciliation transcended race and religion.
The nationwide day of prayer marks the formal start of a week-long state funeral for the man who forged a new multi-racial South Africa from the discredited remnants of the apartheid era he helped to dismantle.
US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will attend a memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday, a White House official said, one of a growing number of world leaders set to fly in to pay their respects to the anti-apartheid hero.
The commemorations will culminate in Mandela's burial on December 15 in Qunu - the rural village where he spent his early childhood.
President Jacob Zuma has stressed that Sunday's services should move beyond grief and openly celebrate the legacy of Mandela who died Thursday after a long illness, aged 95.
“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,” Zuma said.
The president was to attend prayers at a Methodist Church in a predominantly white Johannesburg neighbourhood, while former president Thabo Mbeki was to join prayers at a synagogue in the city.
A large congregation was also expected at the country's largest Catholic church in the once blacks-only township of Soweto.
The prayers were to be echoed a continent away in London, where Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, will lead a remembrance service.
Mandela's health had been in serious decline for some time, but his death still came as a deep shock to South Africans whose attachment to their first black leader was profound and deeply personal.
Since the news of his death broke, his Johannesburg residence has become something of a pilgrimage site, with thousands coming to pay private tribute.
The mood has been by turns sombre and celebratory, with some leaving floral tributes and lit candles, while others danced and sang in honour of the man they affectionately knew as Madiba.
“To me it's not a sad day. It's a day of hope, for us to be able to determine the future,” said salesman Khabile Mgangame.
Mandela's family compared the loss of their adored patriarch to the trauma of separation during his long incarceration in Robben Island.
“The pillar of the family is gone, just as he was away during that 27 painful years of imprisonment,” family spokesman Temba Matanzima told journalists in Johannesburg on Saturday.
“His presence was like a baobab tree that provided a comforting shade that served as protection and security for us,” he said - referring to the massive tree with its famously thick trunk.
On Tuesday around 80 000 people are expected to attend, with Obama, the official memorial service in the Soweto sports stadium that hosted the final of the 2010 World Cup.
Mandela's body will then lie in state for three days from Wednesday, with his coffin taken in a cortege through the streets of Pretoria each morning to allow as many people as possible to say farewell.
France's Francois Hollande will be among the other world leaders flying in over the next few days to pay their respects.
The organisational and security logistics are daunting, and the military has cancelled leave for troops and reservists to help with crowd control.
One of the towering figures of the 20th century, Mandela's reputation was truly global, and his obsequies look set to attract a unique gathering of the world's political and cultural elite.
Tributes have poured in from every conceivable quarter, from the worlds of sports and entertainment, and from North America and Israel to North Korea and the Palestinian Territories. - Sapa-AFP