Flag Controversy in the US and South Africa

Last month, in the state of South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof sat in on a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston for an entire hour before he opened fire in the church. When his shooting rampage ended, nine people were left dead in the historic African-American church.

As information about who Dylann Roof is and what his motives might be came out, his racist intentions came out by his affiliation with white supremacist websites and his waving of the Confederate flag. The car he drove bore a vanity plate adorned with the Confederate flag and the words, “Confederate States of America.”  And those who came into contact with him speak of his racist beliefs.

One of his roommates, Dalton Tyler, said of Roof, “He was big into segregation… He said he wanted to start a civil war.”

“He said blacks were taking over the world. Someone needed to do something about it for the white race,” Joey Meek, one of his childhood friends, said. “He said he wanted segregation between whites and blacks.”

Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the deceased victims, said that Roof stated to those black victims that he shot, “You’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told AP that Roof appeared to be a “disaffected white supremacist.”

In a statement, Cohen said the mass murder is “an obvious hate crime by someone who feels threatened by our country’s changing demographics and the increasing prominence of African Americans in public life.”

Images of Roof surfaced of him not just showing support for the Confederate flag, but also of him wearing a jacket with two flag patches on it: one of Apartheid-era South Africa, and the other of Rhodesia, a white-dominated country that became majority-black-ruled Zimbabwe.

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“I think, in some ways, that those are the symbols and sources of his pride and perhaps his angst,”  Dr. Omar H. Ali from UNC Greensboro said.

“Someone deliberately putting those flags on his jacket, very openly displaying them, that doesn’t happen randomly. It symbolizes intent and ideology,” Mark Pitcavage, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told the Daily News. “(The photo) was the first hint we had that the suspect behind (the shooting) might not have simply been racist, but ideologically racist.”

This supposed interest and support of apartheid connects to Roof’s beliefs in racial segregation and white supremacy, and unfortunately Roof is not alone in using this symbol of apartheid to express their racist beliefs.

TIME Magazine even ran a story under the following headline in the aftermath of the massacre:

UntitledA civil rights group which monitors white supremacist groups says the apartheid-era flag, which South Africa dropped in 1994, has begun showing up in several white supremacist demonstrations in the U.S. and elsewhere over the last several years, often times among protesters who make claims of an alleged white genocide in South Africa targeting white farmers in the country.

Stephen Piggott, a campaign coordinator at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says that the apartheid-era flag has recently appeared at rallies in the U.S. for a nationalist group called the South Africa Project, a group that raises awareness of alleged genocide against white farmers in South Africa.

It has also appeared at what are called “white man marches,” which have recently taken place in the U.K., and are centered around the “white genocide movement,” which attempts to maintain political and cultural white power around the world.

“The flag shows up at protests where there’s talk of white genocide, not just in South Africa,” Piggott says. “The last time we’ve seen the apartheid flag has been around the white genocide movement.”

This draws us back to Dylann Roof and his connection between the belief of what both apartheid-era South African flag and the Confederate flag stood for.

In the weeks after this massacre in South Carolina, a national uproar began around the Confederate flag and its place in American society. One widely circulated photo of the shooter holding a gun and a Confederate flag has stirred intense outrage.

The Confederate flag, which is the battle flag of the Confederate States of America that had seceded from the United States in the 1860s and fought the North in the U.S. Civil War, has been seen by many as a symbol of what the South was fighting for, which was predominantly slavery. Despite the South losing the Civil War, the flag has continued to be used as a symbol by some of Southern pride and heritage, and by others as a symbol of racism, white supremacy, and hatred. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Confederate flag wasn’t as divisive or prevalent then as it is today. It was only in the 1960s during the Civil Rights era that the flag made a resurgence. Sen. Strom Thurmond incorporated the flag into his 1948 segregationist presidential campaign and from that point on, the Confederate flag saw new life. The flag soon morphed into a symbol for opposition to the civil rights movement and desegregation. The flag went up at the South Carolina State House in the 1960s as a symbol to resist the Civil Rights movement.

In the wake of this tragedy, many businesses stopped selling Confederate flags, including Walmart, Amazon, eBay and Sears.

Johnna Hoff, an eBay spokesperson, said that the Confederate flag has “become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.”

South Carolina’s state legislature and governor even voted in this month to formally take down the Confederate flag that had flown outside its State House for over 50 years.

USA Today - July 10, 2015

USA TODAY – July 10, 2015

“I thought about all of the African-Americans that lost their lives because of the flag, because of the hatred that this flag symbolizes,” said Theresa Burgess, a 48-year-old kindergarten teacher from South Carolina. “I knew that a lot of Americans would have loved to be here today.”

Ms. Burgess said the flag’s removal would bring an end to “decades of racism, decades of what this flag symbolizes.”

This flag controversy in the US does resonant with South Africa, and not just because Dylann Roof had a jacket with a flag patch of apartheid South Africa. South Africa, despite its new flag being introduced in 1994 as part of the country’s new democratic government and signaling the end of apartheid, is also still dealing with these same issues of lingering white supremacy and arguments of the need to preserve the heritage of the old apartheid days.

Seeing the image of Dylann Roof wearing a jacket with a flag patch of apartheid South Africa made me think back to my experience at the Battle of Blood River Heritage Site and Museum in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. At the gift shop of the museum were a number of old apartheid-era memorabilia, including the flag that was the country’s national flag from 1928-1994 – a flag that is synonymous with apartheid.

Old apartheid-era flag for sale at the Blood River Heritage Site and Museum - 2012

Old apartheid-era flag for sale at the Blood River Heritage Site and Museum – 2012

This flag, and the controversy around it, is similar to America’s Confederate flag. I saw this flag numerous times in South Africa in museums, but this was the first time I saw it for sale in a gift shop, and I don’t know why but it shocked me. Obviously there are a number of South Africans who unfortunately look fondly back to the days of apartheid, but to see this flag still being sold in today’s society was as shocking as seeing Confederate flag stickers on people’s cars or Confederate flags flying over state buildings.

While the old apartheid-era flag doesn’t fly over any government buildings today as the Confederate flag does, it is nonetheless controversial as it still flies at people’s homes, on people’s cars and trucks, and it even still sold in gift shops in the country. The old apartheid flag represents the same white supremacy, segregation, and racism that the Confederate flag does, and so the questions begs, when will there be an uproar over this symbol of hatred and racism in South Africa?

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