It is ironic that the great Nelson Mandela will visit Washington while Mayor Marion Barry is occupying the defendant's table in court, hearing the sordid charges raised against him.

In one case, it is an individual triumph, and in the other, an individual tragedy; yet in both instances, it is considerably more.

Nelson Mandela today is the peerless symbol of a people's yearning for freedom from cruel and debilitating bondage. Barry is the object of pity, rage and derision, a once powerful man fallen from grace.

But the young Mandela could be reminiscent of the young Barry, for at the beginning, both held great promise.

The similarities between the American South and South Africa are striking. Several historians have written comparative works. In his acclaimed study of the history of racial segregation in South Africa and the United States, for example, John W. Cell of Duke University calls segregation an essentially new system created in both societies early in this century by "well-educated and comparatively moderate men as an apparently attractive alternative to more extreme forms of white supremacy." During the civil rights movement, many called segregation "America's apartheid."

Just as Mandela emerged from that system thousands of miles away, Barry's original venue was the American South. At a time when white South Africans were despising Mandela and labeling him a criminal and a communist, Barry was at sit-ins and on freedom rides. While Mandela was wrongly imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities, Barry was beginning his political ascendancy in the nation's capital.

A tragic but interesting division occurred somewhere along the way, in which Barry, who had so much promise, thwarted his chances of becoming a civil rights and black political elder statesman. He has a tragic flaw.

While Nelson Mandela comes to Washington as a man of character, discipline and integrity, Barry, according to the charges being raised in court, is on trial for his lack of the same qualities.

While millions of people around the country are expected to come out to see Nelson Mandela, millions of people around the world are reading about seamy allegations of repeated drug use by Barry.

As Marion Barry arrives at court wearing a contorted grin and giving a forced wave, accompanied by his grim and troubled wife, Effi, Nelson Mandela arrives for a ticker-tape parade, his face serene despite his 71 years, and his courageous wife, Winnie, smiles with victory over tremendous pain.

While the television sound bites at night about Barry are of Charles Lewis decribing how the mayor allegedly "did crack all over town," carrying it around in matchboxes and his pant cuffs, the sound bites of Nelson Mandela are of admirers comparing Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., and of Mandela reminding the world that South Africa is not free.

How disappointing -- how one would have wished the situation different.

But Barry lost his chance at being an elder statesman, and because of his own admission of having smoked crack cocaine, he has shown a lack of the character, integrity and discipline that had to be abundant in Mandela to emerge after 27 years in prison as a man of wisdom, vision, love and humility.

The destinies of both men are defined by character. Apartheid's prison could not kill Mandela because he understood that he must take care of his body and his mind. He exercised and ate spartanly. By contrast, the heights of power were not enough for Barry; he abused his body and his mind.

It could be said that both men this week are coming to reap the fruits of their deeds.

Yet how terribly painful it is going to be for Barry to be on trial while Mandela, the man often revered as the successor to a Barry hero, Martin Luther King Jr., comes to Washington. What could have been a magnificent day of triumph -- a black mayor of the capital of the free world -- is instead one filled with shame and disgrace.

So strong is the coincidence of Mandela's visit and Barry's trial that for one wistful moment, I could almost picture a time when the two men would have raised arms together -- the senior one, and the junior one. But in a flash, the moment was gone.