Chicago activists who never gave up on a free SA

A new documentary celebrates the efforts of anti-apartheid activists from Illinois with a message that it is never time to stop the fight against oppression everywhere.

In 1978, a Chicago pastor authorised $100 to be spent on a sign he planted outside his South Side church. 

The sign read “Free South Africa” and Reverend Jeremiah Wright was resolute that grass should grow around its metal legs for as long as freedom was still to dawn in South Africa.

Wright, now retired, was a firebrand pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ, preaching liberation theology. He broke easily from stuffy traditions and veered to a spirituality that took shape as a fight against social injustice, oppression and inequality. It was focused firmly on liberation in Africa, and Southern Africa in particular. 

Today the church is one of the largest in America, with celebrities such as the Obamas (whom Wright married in the church in 1992) and Oprah Winfrey among its one-time congregants. But in 1978, Wright was on his own. He urged other churches to follow suit and buy “Free South Africa” signs in solidarity, but this yielded zero responses, he remembers.

Undated: Reverend Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ placed a sign in front of his church that read “Free South Africa”. (Image from Mandela in Chicago)

Trinity United’s sign stayed up, year in and year out. And some people noticed. One of them was Chicago local Ava Thompson Greenwell, a student in the 1980s.

“I remember seeing the sign … wondering about South Africa, but I grew up in a home where my mom, a single parent, was just trying to survive and raise us kids,” says Greenwell. Today she is a professor at Northwestern University’s journalism school and a freelance broadcast journalist and producer.

It would be decades later and through a series of coincidences, synchronicities and divine intervention, as Greenwell calls it, that she would end up creating her documentary film Mandela in Chicago, released in March this year.


The elements fell into place when Greenwell started visiting South Africa in 2016 with her journalism students. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, she had clocked up 11 visits.

“Each time I would leave South Africa feeling an enriching connection, but I would also leave grieving. I couldn’t ignore that there were communities without running water years after democracy, or that people who looked like me died trying to hook up an electricity feed because they couldn’t afford electricity legally. Economic freedom and power has not come for so many Black people. It made the similarities between South Africa and parts of Chicago so obvious,” she says. 

With each trip to South Africa a long thread unspooled and would gather up again with connected histories, geographies and realities of economic inequalities that put Black people at the bottom of the rung. 

Along with deepening insight from the trips to South Africa, there was also a chance invitation to a party back in Chicago that finally put the Trinity United Church’s “Free South Africa” sign back on the radar for Greenwell. 

Undated: The sign that brought apartheid to the consciousness of civil rights supporters in Chicago. (Image from Mandela in Chicago)

The party was an annual hurrah for the anti-apartheid activists who first connected in the 1970s with the common goal of ending oppressive Nationalist Party rule in South Africa. Meeting the activists on the party list, Greenwell recognised that they were nostalgic for their role in shifting history and that their personal memories were a matter of social record. Their activism also resonated with today’s continuing struggles. 

“For me the Free South Africa movement is sandwiched between the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement and part of making this documentary is for people to understand the connections and know our histories so that we do not repeat the same mistakes,” she says. 

It also turned out that the host of the party, Lisa Brock, was the person who had assembled and curated the media and ephemera that form the Chicago Anti-Apartheid Movement Collection (1956-2012), held at Columbia College Chicago.

“There was over 40 hours of footage that they gave me full access to,” says Greenwell. 

The creation process 

Greenwell selected and edited the footage and interviewed activists from South Africa and Chicago. Over her 50-minute film, Greenwell sets out the long history of the connections Black Americans have with South Africa, which stretches back to the 1800s, before focusing on the Chicago anti-apartheid movement.

Twenty-seven years into democracy in South Africa, shortcomings and failings are clear, here and globally. Greenwell says this is evident in the #FeesMustFall movement, deepening xenophobia, the Black Lives Matter movement and growing anti-Asian sentiment in the time of the Covid-19 blame game.

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Mandela in Chicago is her nod to the Chicagoans who “held up the centre” of the anti-apartheid movement, when the efforts made on America’s East and West coasts usually get the attention. It recognises individual choices and how these melded into collective action, which eventually became a movement. Sometimes it was taking up a banner and being in a protest march on an icy Chicago day. Other times it was turning a braai (barbeque) into a backyard fundraiser. There were divestment campaigns, tracking bills being passed and targeting legislators and companies still doing business with South Africa during apartheid.

Constant vigilance 

“Things would go in waves over those years. Then there would be a moment, like the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and it would keep our action alive,” says Basil Clunie, an activist who was part of the Coalition for Illinois Divestment and later chair of the Chicago Committee in Solidarity with Southern Africa.

“We knew that victory wasn’t assured but we knew we needed to be constantly vigilant,” he says, adding that in the 1970s and 1980s South Africa scarcely made the news in the United States. Still they found ways to keep information flowing. To mimic shack settlements, they put up mock shacks on the campus of Northwestern University when that institution turned a blind eye to calls for divestment. Their members got onto every public platform possible to keep South Africa’s plight on the conscience of more Americans. 

Then a victory arrived. Nelson Mandela walked free in 1990. Clunie remembers the jubilation and how spirits soared. But later that year, when Mandela scheduled a thank-you visit to America, Chicago was left out. It would be another three years before Mandela would make it to the city. That visit was a fundraising drive for the African National Congress (ANC) ahead of the 1994 elections. The documentary notes that $2 million was raised in two days for the party.

That trip would also mark a turning point. Greenwell’s scouring of the footage includes a clip of Mandela being interviewed refusing to criticise racism in the United States.

“Here was Mandela on camera saying that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on racism and injustice in America, but there were Americans who stood by him and the ANC. It did make people think twice,” she says. 

Recommitting to struggle

Prexy Nesbitt, an activist and educator in the documentary, accepts setbacks as an opportunity to recommit to the struggles that lie ahead. He acknowledges the penetrating stink that has seeped into the ANC, singling out the Marikana massacre in particular.

“It’s the people who matter, the values that matter. Our struggle stays the same and that is to change the conditions under which so many people live. It’s not about putting one individual forward [or] an orientation of celebrating ‘the great, great men of history’, like Mandela or Martin Luther King,” says Nesbitt, who also served as an election officer in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

7 July 1993: Nelson Mandela delivers a speech in Chicago at which $2 million was raised for the ANC. (Image from Mandela in Chicago)

The documentary also touches on the resentment and resulting fractures when some activists declared there was no room for white people in the anti-apartheid movement. 

Nesbitt, though, warns of this kind of distraction and division. “We need to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ and then have different conversations and to think about things like coalitions and different modalities of leadership. Back in the day for us it was adopting principles of being multiracial but having Black leadership, or being intersectional but having women leadership.

“There remains the cardinal fight against inequity. And in South Africa and in America we have twinned struggles,” he says. 

From the ground

Iva Carruthers, an activist and professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Illinois, who is also interviewed in the documentary, says: “Movements are most successful when they come from the ground up and when we keep clarity of the role of the people who became a symbol or a voice but understand that [they] are not the movement. We had a Martin Luther King because we had a Malcolm X. We had a Nelson Mandela because we had a Winnie Madikizela Mandela. When African women stood up and said, ‘You have struck a rock’, it connected to the narrative of Rosa Park and Fannie Lou Hamer in the United States.

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“We should not misconstrue successes as success when they leave us more vulnerable because of the way empire is organised. We should also not underestimate the extent of how globalisation sustains systems of oppression. Ultimately there are lessons and roles for truth telling, reckoning and reparations.”

Mandela in Chicago should be an educational tool, Greenwell says. She offers the fine texture of history – a sign outside a church – to show that a bigger backstory exists, and that the story is still unfolding. 

“We might have thought we were done, that we moved the needle. But if we don’t pay attention, those ‘isms’ rear their heads and the needle will swing right back,” says Greenwell. 

Mandela in Chicago can be viewed here.

Circa 1993: Nelson Mandela with the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his visit to Chicago. (Image from Mandela in Chicago)
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