SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader who died Thursday, was an amazing figure to have come out of his trials and tribulations and still hold an inclusive viewpoint, according to a UC San Diego political science professor.
"It's hard to think of someone more important to political history over the past 50 years than Mandela," Clark Gibson, who specializes in African politics, told City News Service. He equated Mandela -- who died in his Johannesburg-area home at age 95 -- with Mahatma Ghandi, who led India to independence from Great Britain.
"(Mandela) was one of the few who led an African country through a peaceful reconciliation period," said Gibson, who happens to be traveling to South Africa Saturday.
The professor said this came at a time when everyone expected a race war in South Africa, and many whites fled.
"He was the key figure in preventing that and making it a peaceful transition," Gibson said.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison for fighting white minority rule in South Africa, becoming the world's most prominent political prisoner.
He was freed in February 1990 by then-President F.W. de Klerk, and the two went on to earn the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of apartheid.
Mandela became president the next year.
For decades, he held the fractious African National Congress together through the force of his personality, Gibson said. Even in recent years, the now-ruling ANC stayed together because of Mandela's presence, despite differences between various factions.
The future of the party is in question now that Mandela is gone, Gibson said. A more liberal, multiracial party has been gaining electoral ground in recent years, according to the professor.
Marion Cloete, a native of South Africa who is the director of diversity services at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, said Mandela was a "beacon of hope" while growing up as a black person under apartheid.
"This is a man who chose to remain imprisoned when he could have saved himself by subjugating his principles of justice and equality to white domination," Cloete said. "My life has been profoundly influenced by his courage and example during those years of struggle. We bid farewell to the father of our democracy, but Madiba will never really leave us because he cannot be replaced."
Madiba is the name of Mandela's clan.
San Diego Interim Mayor Todd Gloria said Mandela will be celebrated for the inspiration he brought to people around the world.
"Nelson Mandela's resilience -- and his relentless dedication to the principles of justice and human rights -- have served as an inspiration to people around the world," Gloria said. "Let's mourn his passing, but also celebrate his extraordinary life and his indelible contributions to humankind."
Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who represents many of San Diego's minority neighborhoods, said on her Twitter account that Mandela's passing was "a great & global loss."
Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, said on his Twitter account that Mandela was "a great leader & truly inspirational figure."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said in a statement that his thoughts and prayers went out to widow Graca Machel, the Mandela family and the South African people.
"Nelson Mandela's legacy of peaceful reconciliation in the struggle against apartheid lives on to inspire people around the world," Issa said. "We will never forget his incredible capacity to forgive or his advocacy for the cause of freedom and democracy."
Mandela was hospitalized for nearly three months earlier this year for treatment of a recurring lung infection. The country's current president, Jacob Zuma, said he would be accorded a full state funeral.
A crowd was gathering outside the Mandela home, according to various news reports.
President Barack Obama said, "We have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us -- he belongs to the ages."
Gov. Jerry Brown said, "Nelson Mandela fought heroically for freedom and a truly democratic society. His courageous life shows what's possible when one acts on his convictions."
In honor of Nelson Mandela, flags at the Capitol in Sacramento will be flown at half-staff, according to the governor.