Nelson Mandela is scheduled to appear at noon today at a downtown rally that was hastily arranged at the insistence of a D.C. Council member who said people in Washington want to celebrate the South African leader the same way throngs did in New York and Boston.
Thousands of fliers were distributed citywide yesterday by the D.C. Mandela Welcoming Committee to advertise the rally, which will be at Freedom Plaza, across from the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW.
"People want a day of celebration," said D.C. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6). "We just want to feel good about him being here."
Before the rally was added to Mandela's schedule, his only major public appearance was to be tonight at the Washington Convention Center. The 19,000 tickets for that event sold out in five days.
Winter, who is running for reelection, scrambled to organize this afternoon's celebration, which she described as a two-hour salute to Mandela that will "not include a lot of political speeches."
The African Drummers and Dancers group and a gospel choir will provide entertainment, Winters said. Two thousand balloons in the colors of the African National Congress -- red, black and gold -- will be released.
A "Welcome Mandela" sign is already in place atop the District Building for the festivities.
Although the fliers advertise that Mandela will be visible "along the parade route," last night it was uncertain how that would be accomplished.
The Mandela welcoming committee had hoped that the State Department would arrange to have "the Mandela-mobile," which was used in a ticker tape parade in New York, shipped to Washington. But Christine Dolan of the national Mandela welcoming committee said the vehicle may not arrive in time.
Celebrations were not the focus of Mandela's three-day stay in Washington, organizers said. He came here to find out what he can expect the U.S. government to contribute to his attempts to abolish apartheid and end white-minority rule in South Africa. Mandela met with President Bush at the White House yesterday and later spent time with labor leaders at AFL-CIO headquarters on 16th Street NW.
Mandela told the labor leaders some of his ideas about the roles of labor and business in a democratic South Africa. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland assured Mandela of contiued support for economic sanctions intended to pressure the South African government.
The original schedule of activity for Mandela for today also has important political stops. He is expected to have breakfast with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and to address Congress.
But Mandela tour organizers agreed to add the downtown rally to Mandela's schedule "to expand the community spirit within Washington because it has been more of a statesman's event," Dolan said.
"The people have spoken," said Gay McDougall, a member of the D.C. Mandela Welcoming Committee who is helping arrange the downtown event.
Mandela is to arrive for the rally at Freedom Plaza, formerly called Western Plaza, in a motorcade that will start about noon at the Capitol, where he will address a joint session of Congress. The motorcade will go northwest on Pennsylvania Avenue to Freedom Plaza.
Winter said she and her staff "worked hard for five days to pull together" the rally. There were hours of negotiations with the D.C. Mandela Committee, national tour organizers, representatives of the African National Congress, State Department officials and D.C. police and emergency preparedness officials. Many of the performers volunteered to entertain.
Winter said the rally will happen today even if Mandela cannot appear. "We will come together in the park and celebrate. The spirit is there. People are very enthusiastic. We're going on with it whether Mandela is there or not," she said.
For the two principal agencies providing security for Mandela in Washington, the quickly arranged rally was the first test of their contingency planning.
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security's director said that the rally -- and any speech -- would be called off if the area is not secure. "If we don't think it is safe, we're not going to let him do it," said Frank Matthews.
But D.C. police, who would be responsible for crowd control at the rally, said they have prepared for such an event.
"If he doesn't speak, it won't be because we aren't ready for it," said D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. "We started planning for just this type of unexpected event last week. We'd like to have a set schedule with everything in place. But it doesn't work like that."
Even as late as 8 p.m. yesterday, Fulwood said he wasn't sure whether Mandela would stop at Freedom Plaza.
"We will have enough people ready," Fulwood said. "We're pretty set."
Staff writers Karlyn Barker, Sharon Epperson, Keith Harriston, Daniel Pink and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.