A new documentary on Chicago’s Free South Africa Movement follows the efforts of the city’s public officials and social activists against South Africa’s racist apartheid system and the imprisonment of eventual South African President Nelson Mandela.
For decades, apartheid was state-sanctioned discrimination against Black South Africans that resulted in segregation as well as housing and employment discrimination. The system was repealed in the early 1990s.
The film “Mandela in Chicago,” premiering on WTTW at 4 p.m. Sunday, delves into one of the many city and statewide tactics, among others, used to pressure an end to apartheid: financial stress.
Filmmaker Ava Thompson Greenwell, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, touched on the Coalition for Illinois Divestment from South Africa, or CIDSA, a group formed in 1983 to push Illinois’ divestment in South African industries like steel.
“[CIDSA was] one of the many organizations in Chicago that was trying to educate citizens, but also trying to mobilize them and motivate them to see that what was going on in South Africa wasn’t that different than what was going on in Chicago in terms of how segregated the city was – and still is,” Greenwell said. “And also the kind of inequities that African Americans were facing in the United States was very similar to what the inequities were – and still are – for Black South Africans.”
Another focal point for Chicago activists was the release of anti-apartheid activist Mandela, who was finally freed in 1990 after 27 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the South African’s institutionalized system of racism.
After initially skipping Chicago during a 1990 tour of the United States, Mandela visited the city in 1993 – prompting a flurry of fanfare and funding for the African National Congress, Mandela’s political party under which he would win the 1994 South African presidential election.
“That visit was huge – not only for the psyche of all the people in Chicago who had really worked to end apartheid,” Greenwell said. “But it was also huge for the African National Congress because they were doing these tours to raise money, they knew there was an election that was coming up. So it was a fundraising effort and it was also a thank you to the people of Chicago.”
Greenwell, who co-directs Medill’s South Africa Residency program, said she hopes “Mandela in Chicago” is screened in Chicago-area schools to educate young people of the city’s anti-apartheid efforts during the 1980s.