The coming of Nelson Mandela this weekend is of major interest to the African diplomatic corps here, though the diplomats are only a small part of the event, an hour or two on the schedule, a short greeting, a quick handshake. "Some tea, some juice, a few hors d'oeuvres," said Cape Verde Ambassador Jose Luis Fernandes Lopes, dean of the Diplomatic Corps.

Even so, this evening's meeting -- Lopes emphasizes it is not a social occasion -- may give Mandela critical information from his compatriots, he could not hear from other sources.

The Washington African ambassadors group will give Nelson Mandela a comprehensive briefing on U.S. attitudes toward the anti-apartheid movement. "We are according the same attention to Mr. Mandela that we give African heads of state when they come to this capital," said Lopes. "We will put the 42 ambassadors to talking with him at the meeting -- this is the maximum we can do." Lopes is the first African ambassador to be dean of the Washington Diplomatic Corps.

The event is set at the Madison Hotel, a staid venue for the exuberance of the welcome to the great man.

Mandela, Lopes and Mauritania Ambassador Abdellah Ould Daddah, the vice dean of the Diplomatic Corps, will sit at a head table together with two members of Mandela's party.

"We will explain to him the general political attitude in the United States, and the way the United States public sees anti-apartheid and the sanctions against South Africa," Lopes said. "We will tell Mr. Mandela what contacts our group made with members of Congress in preparation for his visit. "

Lopes said Mandela's visit "is very important for us. Africa tends to be forgotten in the United States. Mr. Mandela's personality and his position as de facto leader of the ANC will create a new momentum of attention of the United States public to problems in South Africa, and to Africa in general. Despite the good will of President F.W. De Klerk, apartheid is still in place. Mandela is the best person to do away with this."

This one scheduled event for Mandela to meet the African envoys has shifted and changed like a desert mirage. "We were planning to have a meeting of all the African ambassadors at my residence," said Egyptian Ambassador El Sayed Abdel Raouf El Reedy. "But we had to give up on this. So many people want to do things for Mandela. He is much in demand, very popular."

El Reedy spoke last week by phone from a North Carolina beach resort -- "I'm resting up for Mr. Mandela's visit." As some people do when talking about Mandela, he spoke in exclamations: "The great leader of the just cause of his people is coming to the United States! A very significant event! Your country's contribution in the fight against racial discrimination is very great, and we hope for your support to continue. We are sure that Mr. Mandela's meetings with President Bush and Secretary Baker and his address before Congress will be landmarks!"

South African Ambassador Pieter G.J. Koornhof is more restrained in his enthusiasm. At the latest inquiry, he hasn't been invited to the diplomats dinner. As one organizer put it, "Mr. Mandela will represent South Africa."

The South African Embassy press office said Koornhof "gave an invitation to the African National Congress to assist Mr. Mandela. As yet, we have no reply. Ambassador Koornhof was invited to attend the joint meeting of Congress -- he will go, but we have nothing else scheduled."

Even so, Koornhof said in a statement: "Mr. Mandela's visit is important, and I hope it is a good visit. We are confident that through a spirit of conciliation, peace, justice and stability will be achieved in South Africa."

Farther down the list, Osseni Dagloria, Benin's cultural ambassador, said that though he and others below the level of ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary would not have the chance to meet Mandela, "his coming is a great experience for all people of Africa. It's incredible that a former prisoner is now a great personality. Wonderful! We will observe carefully."

The African diplomatic corps -- despite sometimes wearing splendid tribal robes, yards and yards of magnificent hand-woven or tie-dyed cottons, and bold adornments, as much sculpture as jewelry -- is not as evident on the diplomatic rounds as, say, the British or French. Though, like diplomats of other regions, African ambassadors meet often.

El Reedy said, "We gather once a month, in rotation, at each other's embassies -- not a luncheon, but with drinks. Most recently, we met to talk about Mr. Mandela's visit. That was when we decided to have a reception at our embassy, but now we are going to meet at his convenience.

"Usually, we discuss political and economic problems. At our anniversary meeting in May, Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger came."

African Americans have some links with the African embassies, El Reedy said. "They are able to play an important role in this country, and they have helped us in making the United States aware of African problems. We work with Black Caucus and TransAfrica. Jesse Jackson and {Rep.} Bill Gray {D-Pa.} take a special interest."

The African diplomats have more informal oases of interest. The International School in Cleveland Park, where the El Reedy children went, and the French School are favorites, since so many are Francophone. The French-speaking African diplomats also, said John Jova, recently retired as head of Meridian House, attend the 11 a.m. Sunday services at Epiphany Catholic Church in Georgetown. Epiphany, Jova adds, started out many years ago as a mission church for black Catholics.

Walter Cutler is a former ambassador to that part of the world and Jova's successor at Meridian House International, a nonprofit institution for international exchanges. Cutler said African ambassadors attend the house's seminar given by Cabinet members. Other members of the African diplomatic corps attend events designed to help foreigners settle in Washington, sponsored by the Hospitality and Information Service at Meridian House. Several hundred recently attended an African marketplace festival at Meridian's magnificent mansions.

And so, tonight, if all goes well, the African ambassadors will meet the African hero, Nelson Mandela. And surely the welcome will be as warm as the African sun.