In a statement on South African national TV, president Jacob Zuma said his country had "lost its greatest son".
"Our beloved Nelson Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation has departed. He passed peacefully," Zuma said. "He is now resting. He is now at peace."
Flags will fly at half mast until after the former president's state funeral.
"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves," Zuma explained.
"Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together and it is together that we will bid him farewell."
Mr Mandela had been receiving home-based medical care after being discharged from hospital in September following a near three month stay where he was treated for a recurring lung infection.
He spent 27 years behind bars for opposing white rule in his country before becoming South Africa's first black president in 1994.
Share your memories of Mandela and light a candle for him on his profile at www.remembered.co.za.
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