Forget the mob -- the committed and the merely curious, the sincere and the fad-fueled -- all of whom want a piece of the Nelson Mandela action when the South African leader arrives in town Sunday.

Focus instead on Vernetta Perry, part-time receptionist at the downtown office of the Nelson Mandela U.S. Tour National Welcoming Committee, where Mandela's visit is being coordinated. Last week, Perry was so swamped with phone calls that she had no time to add her customary endearments ("Line 2, sugar") when alerting co-workers to calls. So busy that her lunch of potato chips and a pork-chop sandwich sat untouched for hours. At moments, she felt almost mesmerized by the flashing lights stacked on her computer screen, each blip representing somebody intent on meeting, scheduling, somehow getting to Mandela.

"I took thousands of calls," she says now. "I'm telling you -- there is a buzz around this man." Most people, she says, are like her -- admirers who "think he's a great guy who should never have been locked up. ... I just want to see what he really looks like -- for what he's been through. I sure want to meet him."

She'll have to stand in a very long line. Whatever else African National Congress leader Mandela is -- activist, symbol, key player in one of the world's trickiest and most closely watched political situations -- he is also a bona fide hero. His elegant stroll Feb. 11 from a prison farm near Cape Town, South Africa, after 27 years of incarceration, instantly catapulted him from isolation to international superstardom.

As a result, the leader's first visit to the United States is a historic event that has thousands scurrying to participate.

At first, representatives of various cities fought to have their hometowns on the itinerary. "Now, people are calling and asking for {Mandela} to make videotapes; they're saying, 'Since he's not coming to my city, can you tape a two-minute message where he says, "Hello, people of so-and-so?" ' " said Cecelie Counts Blakey, an associate director of the national welcoming committee, yesterday morning.

If the requests weren't enough, "things are changing every minute," she continued. "We have to explain that the schedule that was always marked tentative is still subject to change. For example, what time is it now, 10:20? Our latest understanding is that Mr. Mandela is still in Canada. But the New York Times had him {scheduled to speak} at a high school in Brooklyn at 10:45."

She added: "I've taken my watch off. There's no point in getting upset about time."

Or people desperate to get to a genuine folk hero. Blakey is reveling -- a bit wearily, but reveling nonetheless -- in people's excitement. "We want people to express their anti-apartheid sentiment, to suggest he is their hero. Only a few years ago, only a few people even knew his name. It's particularly poignant for activists who worked so hard ... long before the first T-shirt was ever made."

Now everybody's interested. Start with the press -- some 5,000 journalists have applied for press credentials, says TransAfrica Executive Director Randall Robinson, who -- with Harry Belafonte; Lindiwe Mabuza, African National Congress representative and executive committee member for Democracy for Africa; Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the union AFSCME; and Jesse Jackson -- sits on the executive committee in charge of the visit.

The pressure of dealing with persistent reporters eager to wrangle exclusive or near-exclusive interviews with "the world's number one political celebrity" is toughest, says Robinson, tougher even than raising the cash necessary to finance the 10-day, eight-city trip at the same time that it's being scheduled.

"Yesterday I talked to Phil Donahue; before that, we got a call from Charlie Gibson of 'Good Morning America' ... all the local anchors -- everybody wants to have interview him on their show," said Robinson last week.

Then there are the politicos, businessmen, grass-roots activists and everyday people who want to see, meet, speak with, be photographed with, give money to or otherwise commune with Mandela. A smiling trio of high-powered politicians -- New York Mayor David Dinkins, Jackson and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo -- met Mandela at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, and that's just the beginning.

Some people hoping to be seen with Mandela, says Sandre Swanson, an organizer in Oakland, Mandela's final U.S. stop, "just want to be associated with him because it's the thing to do... . There are requests from a number of conventions going on in the area to have Mr. and Mrs. Mandela drop by to say hello. Some people have asked if they can have a 'one-on-one' with Mr. Mandela to give him a check -- the check seemed contingent on being able to meet him."

These are the folks -- and there are surprisingly few of them, according to most organizers -- who view Mandela as a trophy, a hot property whose celebrity for them overshadows his real goal -- equality for black South Africans, says Roger Wilkins, the George Mason University professor and veteran civil rights activist who is national coordinator of the trip.

On the other hand, adds Wilkins, there are "the saints, black and white ... absolutely wonderful people who have worked on {the trip's} problems without thinking of themselves."

Even some of these saints got unexpected rewards. Most organizations that actually managed to get on either Nelson Mandela's or Winnie Mandela's schedule have some history with the ANC. The Metropolitan AME Church downtown, which Sunday afternoon will host a tribute to South African women that Winnie Mandela will attend, has for months donated space to the ANC for press conferences. "Long ago, we told them we were open to them whenever they needed us," explains the Rev. William DeVeaux, pastor of Metropolitan. "I was seriously hoping to get Nelson Mandela himself, but when I looked at the schedule, I thought it's a killer, and that we had no chance at all.

"So then they called me back and said there's this program for Winnie Mandela designed by a consortium of women's groups, and would we do this service. I said, 'Sure.' "

But some high-profile celebrities whom the public has long associated with the anti-apartheid movement weren't on the schedule as of yesterday. Stevie Wonder, who has written a song for Mandela and wants to sing it to him personally during the Washington leg of the leader's visit, hadn't received an answer as of early yesterday, said Lavonia Fairfax, press secretary for Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, whose boss will speak at several Washington events where Mandela will appear. Fairfax, who expects the singer will indeed meet Mandela, said others lacking Wonder's clout have imaginative methods of their own.

Acquaintances and perfect strangers, she said, "have wanted to give me books for Mandela to autograph, pictures to stick in my back pocket to produce for him to sign if I meet him. One woman wanted me to give him her daughter's doll -- he means so much to people."

Some people's ego gyrations have bordered on the ridiculous. "There is a guy who I knew in the '60s as a peripheral figure in the civil rights movement -- not somebody like Stokely {Carmichael} or Marion Barry or Dorothy Height," recalls Wilkins. "And he says about himself in his proposal {to get on Mandela's schedule}: 'There is no civil rights figure now alive who was more deeply involved in the struggle.' And I thought, this guy has absolutely lost his mind."

Not that he's alone. "Americans are like this about every famous person," Wilkins continues. He recalls the behavior years ago of certain hangers-on of Harry Belafonte's when Wilkins's then-employer, the Ford Foundation, helped underwrite the film "Island in the Sun."

"I needed to talk to Harry. And all these people -- white people -- around him were going, 'Harry this and Harry that,' talking as if they owned a piece of him ... his right wrist or left ankle."

Wilkins shakes his head. "Remember those Cabbage Patch dolls? Adults, grown people, flew to London to get them. The only thing different about Mandela is that this man has such extraordinary status because of how he has lived his life, his superb personal charisma. Obviously, his emotional appeal to all idealistic people is large. To black Americans, it's enormous."

Some of those most determined to control or at least be included on the itinerary of Mandela's trip have comparatively little history with the anti-apartheid movement. The Hollywood Women's Political Committee, "real latecomers to the struggle," according to a high-level organizer, who did not wish to be identified, attempted to get considerable control over Mandela's visit to Los Angeles. "They really thought they were going to run this," the organizer said. "{California State Assemblywoman} Maxine Waters wasn't having any -- it just wasn't going to wash."

Locally, Howard University President Franklyn Jenifer asserted to The Washington Post that Mandela would spend more time with him at Howard than he would spend with George Bush -- 10 days before the executive committee met for the first time with anti-apartheid representatives to discuss and confirm Mandela's tentative itinerary. (So far, there are no plans for Mandela to visit Howard or meet privately with Jenifer, though).

So much jockeying. How does Wilkins deal with requests from those whose commitment to Mandela's cause is questionable?

"Very honestly," he says. "I came to my reverence for {Mandela} from a deep and long-term involvement in his cause. So when people come to me with this ego stuff, I look them in the eye and say, 'Can you imagine the peace process in South Africa going forth without Mandela?' He is indispensable. And though he's in good shape, he is in the eighth decade of his life. So you put the immensity of his importance next to your need, and I hope you see that your need pales next to that."

Organizers in the eight cities have been encouraged to limit Mandela to three major appearances a day. (Yesterday, even those tentative schedules promised to be cut back as Mandela's arrival in New York was delayed.) Some cities, Wilkins says, have not met the limit.

"But in the end, I control the schedule," he adds. "And if they don't take care of him, I will."

Adds Robinson: "Our first priority is to take care of {Mandela}. He's South Africa's most precious resource."

Mandela's importance and purpose may be clear, but in any event of this magnitude, many agendas are at stake. Said the high-level organizer, "This may be the trip of the century, and black people are running {it}. You'll notice that most cities on the schedule have a black mayor. We're taking it to our cities. Chicago wanted him, but why do it for {Richard M.} Daley? We scheduled cities where we could guarantee the quality of the welcome {Mandela} would receive."

Wilkins recalls an early steering committee meeting last month where an assortment of national and local activists from across the country put in bids for a Mandela visit to their cities.

"Here were all these people saying, 'Our city is so important that he has to come; our meeting is vital.' I got upset and said, 'This is a human being who will be working like crazy to get his message across. ... He is not a movable feast of a photo opportunity that Americans can use to glorify themselves."

Some participants are truly bitter. Says a longtime East Coast anti-apartheid activist who's worked closely with the ANC and with various Mandela reception committees: "There's a clear Johnny-come-lately syndrome where people who've worked 10 and 20 years in the effort to abolish apartheid have been subsumed by people who have a lot of frequent-flier miles and political connections or corporate agendas.

"When the details of the Mandela tour were announced," he continues, "very few of those who'd for years been involved in envelope-licking or actual planning on the small community level were actually consulted on the venues of the tour, how much time would be spent in communities of color. It was only after some effort and sometimes fighting that the considerations of the black community at large became part of the tour. The emphasis was on heavy-duty, big-money fund-raisers and activities that appeal to center city -- meaning white and upper-middle-class black community -- residents." There is also grumbling at the grass-roots level that "people and corporations who we were picketing in the early and mid-'80s are now playing or attempting to play a prominent role as Free South Africa's best friend."

One key player in the Boston leg of the trip is Paul Fireman, president of the Reebok Corp. -- which, before divesting itself of its South African holdings in 1987, was regarded bitterly by some ANC supporters as a supporter of P.W. Botha's Afrikaner government. (Since divestiture, Reebok has donated considerable money and support to the anti-apartheid movement.)

And last month, Coretta Scott King -- whose Coca-Cola-sponsored visit to South Africa several years ago incensed anti-apartheid activists -- held a meeting for visit organizers at Coke's national headquarters in Atlanta, despite the fact that the soft drink company is being boycotted in some areas for still doing business in South Africa. King's meeting outraged longtime ANC supporters, who have since ensured that Coke will have no further involvement in the trip.

"What strikes me is that we live in a society very much influenced by the need to own things," comments National Welcoming Committee associate coordinator Sylvia Hill. "Unfortunately, some people want to own the anti-apartheid movement and the image. Mr. Mandela is the symbol of that."

Still, she adds, it's impossible not to be thrilled that millions are moved by the man who best symbolizes the struggle she's worked to bring to the world's attention for years.

"I strongly applaud every new person who wants to be a part of this," she says. "We've been working for just that for 20 years, to see the dismantlement of apartheid become a popular cause in this society."

Even Wilkins -- who may have fielded more requests, righteous and ridiculous, than anybody for Mandela's precious time -- understands.

"There's a mystery about this man, about his 27 years in prison," he begins. "Everybody has the desire for self-sufficiency -- the Lone Ranger appeal. We hope that our internal gyroscope could be so clear and strong that no matter what the world did to us, we'd continue to grow."

He stops. Behind his desk in his tiny office, Wilkins stretches out his hands, reaching for the right words to explain the bigness of this man's appeal.

"Before his release," he continues, "the myth was that his dignity and brilliance, that gentle wisdom, had grown while he was in prison. And by God, when we finally saw him, the man was better than the myth."