LOS ANGELES -- With eight days to go until Nelson Mandela arrives here on the penultimate stop of his American tour, decisions are still being made by the hour, and usually by the seat of the pants.
Choices must be made deftly about the pace and tone of Mandela's 22 hours here on June 29, a visit that will climax in a rally at the 90,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This is part show, part serious tribute.
"It's important for people that it be educational," says the local African National Congress representative, Nkululeko Sowazi, of the rally. "Not just a place for music, a place to come and see so-and-so. We've reached a compromise -- a rally with entertainment."
And then there is the biggest variable of all -- Nelson Mandela himself. The most important instruction from the national planners of Mandela's trip was to be mindful of his health. By the time the 71-year-old Mandela reaches the West Coast, he will be at the end of his grueling journey across the continent. Accordingly, there's an afternoon of "private time" on the schedule.
Los Angeles organizers went to a national planning meeting in Washington last month expecting to have two days of Mandela's time. They came home with only one. Still, the contingent remains undaunted.
Movie producer Paula Weinstein, who made the critically acclaimed "A Dry White Season" and sits on the board of the nonprofit Mandela Freedom Fund, described how northern Californians argued convincingly at that Washington meeting for a Mandela stop in their area. "When the San Francisco people made the point that the longshoremen had refused to unload products from South Africa, everyone said, 'Oh, my God, you're right. Take one day from Los Angeles.' And I don't think anyone from Los Angeles felt that was wrong."
Weinstein said she emerged from the meeting "very impressed. Frankly, at different points I cried. ... It was just extremely moving to see the care that was going into this. What he means to the world is extraordinary, and what he means to the African American community is beyond extraordinary."
Weinstein is part of a diverse coalition of individuals and groups that make up the Los Angeles Nelson Mandela Reception Committee. Participants range from unions (AFSCME) to business (Xerox) to the local black community (the Brotherhood Crusade) to entertainment (the Hollywood Women's Political Committee). All can lay claim to past activism and fund-raising on behalf of civil rights issues here or in South Africa. And many of them have contributed thousands of dollars to help underwrite the L.A. event.
"It's like a campaign," said one organizer. "Everybody wants a piece of the candidate."
Mindful of their public profile, the committee members minimize any internal rifts and have closed their Monday evening meetings to the press. ("They're very high energy kinds of meetings," one participant says.) And the members wax enthusiastic about the visit.
"Everybody's been waiting so long for this day to come," said one organizer. "Well, first of all -- we didn't believe this day would ever come."
Last Friday, at a committee press conference, there were impassioned pleas to raise funds for buses to make this event as accessible as possible to local residents. "This occasion is really only historic if the larger population gets to see him," said Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade Black United Fund, an independent self-help organization here.
"We're sponsoring buses for 10,000 youths, gang members and senior citizens so that at the grass-roots level, people are involved," he said later. "We think his visit should be inspirational."
As for the reference to gang members, which another committee member termed "rhetorical," Bakewell said, "We're talking about reformed gang members -- people trying to make a change in their lives." But, perhaps taking up his earlier rhetorical flourish, he added: "I think this is the kind of event that will calm people. There is an open invitation to gang members, drug addicts, anyone who wants to be in an environment talking about freedom, about justice, about a sense of decency. It's not the kind of thing where you want to exclude anyone. You want to include everyone."
Xerox executive and committee member Bernard Kinsey said he was pleasantly surprised by the planning sessions. "You walk in and say, 'I don't believe this.' People are working together who would never work together." In general, members of the reception committee said the coalition of whites and blacks involved in the planning effort is holding up well.
"If the coalition fell apart you would find there would not be anything to have him come to," said Kinsey, who is black and a longtime fund-raiser in Los Angeles. "And there wouldn't be any fund-raising to speak of."
The majority of the committee members, including its chair, Maxine Waters, are black. "This was not something where we were going hat in hand to liberal white communities to either provide leadership or seed money," said Bakewell, who is black. "We were asking them to join with us to provide leadership in this celebration."
"What's been true since the late '60s and the early '70s is there's been very little coalition work and you can't have it under false circumstances," said Weinstein. "You have to have real circumstances. What's positive here is there's been an actual job to do."
One white organizer said diplomatically, "When we step outside ourselves and look at what this is and what Mandela represents to black people, we can put aside any feeling of isolation we feel."
Only one group on the reception committee will get better access to Mandela than the others. The local branch of the ANC has been allotted time to meet with Mandela in the afternoon -- "if he's not too tired," cautioned Sowazi. "We pushed," the ANC representative said, to make the point "that if it's got to be anyone he meets with privately, it should be members of his own organization."
Mandela will be met at the airport by Mayor Tom Bradley; Vusi Shangase, head of the local ANC chapter; and reception committee chair Waters, a high-profile California Democratic state assemblywoman and congressional candidate.
From the airport, the South African leader will head downtown by motorcade to City Hall, where he will meet the City Council and will address the public at noon on the building's steps. A student rally will kick off at a local park at 3 p.m. and then participants will march to the Coliseum.
After an afternoon at the Biltmore Hotel, where he and his entourage are staying, Mandela will be honored at a dinner at the California Museum of Science and Industry, and will then proceed to the rally at the Coliseum. He flies to Oakland the next morning.
Los Angeles is being touted as something of a cultural stop for Mandela, but more important is its potential for fund-raising. "Los Angeles was seen as a place where major dollars could be raised," said one organizer. The target figure is $1 million, at least half of which is to come from the dinner in Mandela's honor, where a seat costs $1,000. Much of what is raised will go to the Mandela Freedom Fund, a tax-exempt U.S. organization dedicated to training and educating black South Africans.
Organizers have gone out of their way to plan a dinner that leaves little opportunity for special favors. There is no head table, for instance. Supposedly, there will be no complimentary tickets -- for anyone. "No elected official you see there will be comped," one dinner organizer said.
Those involved in the dinner say there's been little jockeying for position next to Mandela. "People are responding," said Weinstein. When she talks to people about buying tickets, she says, "I don't have to get much further than 'Nelson Mandela is coming.' All the questions about 'where am I going to sit?' and 'where is my table?' haven't come up."
There are plans, however, for a small private reception before the dinner, for Mandela to meet the biggest contributors -- those who bought tables for $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000. But organizers are unsure if all of the table purchasers will be invited to the reception, or even if the event will happen at all. "We're not holding this out like a carrot," said one organizer.
As for the evening's entertainment, Quincy Jones was originally in charge of music at the rally but pulled out after a few days. He's still planning the dinner entertainment, along with Brenda Richie, Lionel Richie's wife. Bonnie Raitt's manager said he expects her to perform at the dinner or the rally or both. Singer Seidah Garrett and gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans may also perform at the dinner.
All seats for the Coliseum rally will go for $10 apiece. The idea ostensibly is to make the show accessible to everyone. But one black businessman involved in the planning says the seat prices ought to have been graduated from about $10 to $30, which would have raised more money.
"I don't know why you would run this event any differently from a Raiders game," he said. He disagrees that higher prices for some seats would create financial hardships. "If it were a rap group or tennis shoes, we'd spend $20 to $30, but with an event like this, we consider everybody poor."
Using the Coliseum is difficult and costly. "We had to meet with 10 different agencies just to talk about traffic," said Mike Murase, coordinator of logistics and advance. As for the money raised at the rally, Murase said, "We're just hoping to cover costs."
Back at committee headquarters, volunteers are busy answering phones and mailing fliers. Office manager Gwen Green, a native Californian, has worked in civil rights for 40 years. As she has been a soldier in previous efforts, she is a soldier in this one. Nelson Mandela, she said, "couldn't come here without me being a part of it."
Asked if she will have a chance to be anywhere near him, she said with some resignation, "I don't know. I probably will -- somehow. People here have sense enough to know there can't be private meetings. We know he's going to be here with us and that will be all right."