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When Nelson Mandela visited Chicago

Medill professor Ava Thompson Greenwell’s film about the historic 1993 visit airs on WTTW Channel 11
The film features archival footage and interviews with Chicago and South African activists.

A new documentary film by Northwestern Medill professor Ava Thompson Greenwell explores Nelson Mandela’s historic visit to Chicago and the factors and forces behind it.

The film will air on Chicago’s WTTW Channel 11 at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21. Or viewers can watch anytime at WTTW online.

“Mandela in Chicago” explores Mandela’s visit to Chicago in 1993, three years after he was freed from prison and one year prior to his election as South Africa’s first Black president. 

The film traces the city’s Free South Africa Movement, which fought for Mandela’s release and an end to the state-imposed system of apartheid in South Africa as well as what they saw as another form of apartheid rooted in systemic racism in the U.S. Its members were instrumental in bringing Mandela to Chicago — among the most segregated cities in the nation then and now.

“I hope the doc will be a catalyst to re-connect a new generation of activists in Chicago and regions in South Africa to form partnerships,” Greenwell said. “Afterall, the work for economic equality for Blacks in Chicago and Blacks in South Africa is far from complete.”

A video broadcast professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern, Greenwell co-directs the school’s South Africa Residency Program.

“Mandela in Chicago” features archival footage and interviews with Chicago and South African activists.

The documentary grew out of Greenwell’s first visit to Africa with the program in 2014 and a subsequent realization that the prerequisite course for participating students lacked important history about the role of Chicago and Chicagoans in the anti-apartheid movement.

“I knew there was an urgency to tell this story, and I was right. Already, three people featured have died. The film gives those social justice warriors a place in history that will not be easily forgotten,” Greenwell said.

The film also highlights the role Northwestern and its students played in protesting apartheid. Greenwell also collaborated with several alumni in the making of the film.

“It is fitting that the doc will air on Sunday, Valentine’s Day, since the project has been four years in the making and a labor of love and collaboration with former and current students,” she said.