Brixton prepares for Saint Nelson

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Starry-eyed Pentecostal Christians stand outside Brixton tube station preaching a Second Coming. "The old days are gone. The Lord is coming." The air is alive with apocalyptic expectation: people are talking of little else. Their saviour really is coming to town tomorrow - but he's not called Jesus.

This is not just another statesman, any old president of South Africa; here we have, in Brixton's words, a "hero", an "idol", a "godhead", someone who is "bigger than Michael Jackson". His name reverberates throughout the borough. "To see Nelson Mandela - Oh my God! Just to touch his hand!"

But it is business as usual on Station Road, where the man himself will step out of his car tomorrow morning to an estimated 5,000-strong reception. African colours flutter in the breeze and market stalls are selling video footage of Mandela's release. Preparations for the state visit have been simple: a sound system has been installed on the balcony of Brixton Recreation Centre to pump out reggae music, and a black-and-white banner shouts:

"Woza Nelson Mandela, Welcome Prince Charles".

Pinned up above the entrance to the centre are two giant photographs of the Prince and the President, the one waving royally, the other punching the sky victoriously. "Two of the most important people in the world," remarked one bystander. "Putting Brixton on the map," added another optimistically.

Although Brixton has virtually become a byword for rioting, Mel Milbourne, 48, man- ager of the recreation centre, is confident that on this occasion people will police themselves. "People are very deeply respectful of Mandela," he said. "The visit," Tony Davis, 35, said with a twist of bitterness, "will remind people that there is a black community in Britain."

"You can possibly think of quite a few others [politicians] from other countries who just go to Downing Street or Buckingham Palace, but won't actually go to the grass roots and meet people," Charles Abban, a 24-year- old barrister, said. "I wouldn't expect any less of Mandela ... That's the sort of thing he's been doing all along - going to the townships."

Of course, South Africans have it harder than them, the people of Brixton concede. "They [South Africans] are going through hardship every day. Some days we have good days, but it seems they never do," Samantha Thoussaint, 18, said. But despite the "good days", people here feel they also need Nelson Mandela's example. To them, he is a symbol of black suffering and how to survive it. "He's saying that we can go on, because if he did, we can as well. Once you're in Brixton you're stereotyped as a bad boy ... You don't get the chance to move out."

Daphne Sinclair, an 18-year-old who is going to read English and women's studies at North London University, will be queuing up to see Mandela. "Racism's there when you walk out of the front door," she said. "We're going through the same sort of thing here, so it means a lot to meet Mandela. I'd like to ask him how he survived it, and what we could do to bring some changes for Britain."

Standing outside the Bushman Kitchen, soaking up the atmosphere of impending fest- ivities, Cloverlin Hibbert, 26, a merchandiser, said: "I wouldn't miss it for the world. His life is a message to us, showing us what you can do if you believe in it strong enough. To me he's bigger than Michael Jackson."

Oscar Romp, 32, is one of a select few chosen by the Prince's Trust to stand on the recreation centre balcony alongside Mandela, who has been a "figurehead for humanity" for the artist ever since his student days. Although he has more chance than most to have a word with Mandela, he says he will keep it to just that. "I'll probably say as little as pos- sible. What I most want to say is: 'Thank you'."

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