April 27 will mark 27 years since the formal end of apartheid in South Africa. After decades of activism from both inside and outside the country, Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country’s first free election, after having spent 27 years in prison for his opposition to the regime that allowed the white minority to subjugate the Black majority.

“Mandela in Chicago,” a documentary premiering on WTTW at 4 p.m. on Feb. 14, takes a close look at activists and public officials who played a major role in putting pressure on the South African, Illinois and Chicago governments to end their support of apartheid.

“The organizers really had to develop an educational project in the Chicago area. …You’ll see in the documentary a lot of the archival footage where they’re holding meetings. They’re educating the community about why it matters, why what’s happening eight thousand miles away impacts them.

“And they’re making specific connections between the kind of racial discrimination in South Africa and the kind of racial discrimination that folks were still experiencing in Chicago, and still do…in terms of segregation and disproportionate housing opportunities and disproportionate health opportunities,” said filmmaker Ava Thompson Greenwell in an interview with the RoundTable.

Dr. Greenwell, a professor at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, began her work on the documentary in 2016 when she was a fellow in Kartemquin’s Diverse Voices in Doc. Program.

In the film, Dr. Greenwell focuses in part on the Coalition for Illinois Divestment in South Africa (CIDSA), one of a variety of groups in Chicago that participated in the Free South Africa Movement in the 1980’s.

“Their goal was to have a multi-racial organization in the city. Even though we know there were certainly white people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, it typically is seen as a Black movement.

“Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, is seen as a very multi-racial movement. And so again, Chicago’s anti-apartheid movement sort of fits right there in the middle, and is part of that evolution of what we see today.

“In some ways, it was laying the groundwork for the Black Lives Matter movement to come along decades later and to be composed of not just people who are directly impacted by the kind of racial animus that we see on the part of some police departments, but also people who aren’t necessarily impacted by it but know it’s wrong.

“There are several Evanstonians who feature prominently in the documentary,” said Dr. Greenwell, who is a 27-year resident of Evanston.

Interviewed in the film are Evanston resident Basil Clunie, a strong activist in CIDSA and the anti-apartheid movement; Evanston resident and activist Cheryl Johnson-Odim, who has worked as a professor at Northwestern University and most recently as provost of Dominican University; educator and social advocate Iva Carruthers, who grew up in Evanston; and Evanston Township High School Rachel Rubin, co-lead of the Cook County Public Health Department.

“Rachel Rubin … got her formative indoctrination about social justice while she was at ETHS. In fact she told me there was a teacher there who was talking about what was going on in South Africa.

“One of the things the film does is remind folks that we have people right in our own backyards who actually decided to make a difference by organizing, by learning, by teaching. And we want to make sure we acknowledge them in the documentary because it’s very important,” said Dr. Greenwell.

She noted that many interviews were with couples, “sitting side-to-side, who made their activism work a family affair. As we talk about the importance of family, it’s also very important to me,” said Dr. Greenwell.

The filmmaker said that, in addition to generous funding and support from Northwestern University for the documentary, she had a great deal of help from her husband, Dale Greenwell, along with her adult children and her niece, in promoting “Mandela in Chicago.”

“I also have quite a few students in the credits at the end of the film, because they were helpful in either doing transcriptions, research and even shooting some video footage. So this was a project that students were involved in both on the front end and on the back end. It’s a labor of love and a labor of inclusivity,” said Dr. Greenwell.

She noted that a number of the people featured in the documentary chose to become educators at the university level and taught classes related to the Free South Africa Movement.

“This was their way of giving back to the next generation,” said Dr. Greenwell, adding that it brings to mind current legislation aimed at making sure that Black history is part of the curriculum in the State of Illinois.

Dr. Greenwell said she hopes “Mandela in Chicago” will be viewed in schools in Evanston and Chicago, as well as in South Africa. As co-director of Medill School of Journalism South African Journalism Residency Program, she had the opportunity to do interviews with South Africans, some of whom are seen in the documentary.

“I would love to get a partnership going with some schools in South Africa, because I really believe this could be a catalyst for a new generation of partnerships between South Africa and Chicago. … What’s changed is that we have the internet and we don’t have to take a plane ride to South Africa,” said Dr. Greenwell.

Dr. Greenwell said she sees the film as an opportunity to teach a new generation in Evanston, Chicago and in South Africa about the role that Chicago played in getting legislation for divestment at the city and state level, and also the role that Chicago played in the movement that freed Nelson Mandela and led to the first free election.

“Feb. 11, 1990, is the date of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. So this is a really important week,” said Dr. Greenwell, who was joined by her husband in the interview,

 “The Chicago-Evanston connection in the movement is what you’re going to find really resonates. I think the real heroes are all those amazing people who told their stories in interviews: Jeremiah Wright, Danny Davis, Carol Mosely Braun and others who were in the struggle. Just watching Ava do this and have a full time job and be a mom – she just keeps going and I was amazed at the team she was able to put together,” said Mr. Greenwell.

 “It’s been a labor of love, with emphasis on labor. So it is appropriate that it air on Valentine’s Day. It’s a Chicago story, It’s a Black History story. It’s an American story about what it takes to stand up to speak on behalf of others when you don’t necessarily know whether it’s going to impact anything in the future – because a lot of those people didn’t know whether all the work they were doing was going to be successful,” said Dr. Greenwell.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.