Dylan Roof and the South African Flag

Post-apartheid South African flag being unveiledNew post-apartheid South African flag being unveiled to the United States, 1994. (Photo: White House)

After Dylann Roof brutally murdered nine African Americans in June in Charleston, South Carolina, photographs surfaced of Roof proudly displaying the Confederate flag, which in turn revived a ferocious debate about the flag’s meaning, its relationship to slavery and white supremacy, and the significance of its presence in the public sphere. But Roof also posed for pictures wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, two southern African regimes that were tenaciously committed to white supremacy prior to being overthrown. That a racist mass murderer embraced all of these emblems ought to put to rest the question of whether the Confederate flag can mean anything substantive other than racism. But looking at the history of twentieth-century South Africa and at how South Africans dealt with their flag after the overthrow of state-sanctioned white supremacy could help Americans deal with a similarly troubling legacy.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1910, South Africa’s 15% white minority ruthlessly controlled the economic and political levers of power, and after winning elections in 1948 the Nationalist Party further entrenched racism. While many nations, after World War II, moved away from fascism, white South Africans – especially the majority of whites who were Afrikaners and strongly identified with Germany – more fully embraced fascism and white supremacy. This choice also reflected the emerging postwar reality of anti-colonial movements that started to sweep across Africa and elsewhere in the world that Western imperialism had dominated for centuries.

With the Nationalists’ election in 1948 came the establishment of a racial caste system called apartheid, literally meaning “separate.” Under apartheid, the state registered all people as belonging to one of four races: Black, White, Asian, or Coloured (people of mixed racial ancestry, who legally belonged to a separate category and possessed a distinct culture). No one could legally marry or have sex with anyone from another race. Non-whites could not vote or serve on juries, and they received no protection in the courts. All skilled jobs were denied to blacks under the so-called “colour labour bar,” a system that reserved specific jobs for white people; in essence, the best paid, most powerful, and highly skilled jobs legally were reserved for whites.

Apartheid enshrined the most rigorous set of racial codes the world ever had seen. Whites reserved eighty-seven percent of the land, including the most arable and mineral-rich. The state confined Black people (as well as Asians and Coloureds) to residing in homogeneous “townships,” as cities were reserved exclusively for white people, with blacks only entering to work. Even worse than urban townships, the state forced most blacks to remain in barren, overpopulated, destitute, ethnically-homogeneous “reserves” in rural areas. Blacks needed permission from the state to relocate – and only received it with proof of employment by a white boss. To travel, the state mandated that blacks carry passes that any white could demand to see; the police arrested hundreds of thousands of blacks for pass violations, generally resulting in banishment back to a reserve – or Bantustan as whites called them.

Blacks who protested Apartheid – and from the 1910s into the early 1960s hundreds of thousands did – were arrested, jailed, banned, killed, or exiled. By the mid-1960s, all domestic opposition to apartheid had been squashed. Nelson Mandela, the most famous freedom fighter, was sentenced to life on notorious Robben Island, twelve kilometers from Cape Town though it might as well have been on the moon.

Despite brutal repression, in the mid 1970s, Blacks, Coloureds, Asians, and some Whites resumed the struggle for equality. It took another two decades to overcome apartheid as blacks inside made the country “ungovernable” while allies around the world rallied in solidarity. This freedom struggle was perhaps the greatest global social movement in the late twentieth century.

Many consider the end of apartheid in 1994, formally marked by South Africa’s first multiracial elections, as one of the proudest moments in modern human history.

South African citizens also recognized that their old flag symbolized hate and horror, and that they needed a new flag to represent the democratic nation that South Africa now had become. South Africa accordingly unfurled a new, multicolor flag to celebrate its identity as the “rainbow nation.” The government described its symbolism: “The central design of the flag, beginning at the flagpost in a ‘V’ form and flowing into a single horizontal band to the outer edge of the fly, can be interpreted as the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity.”

By contrast, the United States took a different path after the Civil War, never truly grappling with the legacies of nearly 250 years of race-based slavery and the white supremacy that had emerged to justify the “peculiar institution.” In fact, within a few decades of the Civil War’s end, many Southern whites constructed a narrative in which they were the victims, and adopted the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of this romanticized “Lost Cause.” Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, Southern whites who opposed the civil rights movement reached back into their history and started waving this Confederate flag as a symbol of their opposition to racial equality. They, like Roof in 2015, knew exactly what the Confederate battle flag meant. Just as the apartheid South African flag symbolized white supremacy, so does the Confederate flag – not “heritage” or “pride.”

In South Africa, no one would insist that use of the apartheid-era flag symbolized anything but white supremacy. As a consequence, many South Africans were stunned when they learned of the invoking of their flag in Charleston. As one white South African and former official in the final Apartheid government said of Dylann Roof, “He is deeply mistaken if he imagines anyone in South Africa – from across the political spectrum – would have any reaction other than the deepest revulsion to the cold-blooded killing of innocent worshippers.”

Despite a new flag and protestations otherwise, though, South Africa has not freed itself from white supremacy, either. Race still matters, very much, in South Africa and some South Africans continue to combat its legacy. This year, there has been a massive and somewhat successful effort to revisit the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, the Englishman who in the nineteenth century became one of the world’s richest men by exploiting the land and people in southern Africa; in fact, Rhodes had two British colonies named after him including what is now Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. Dylann Roof also demonstrated affection for Rhodesia, sewing its flag on his jacket and naming his website, The Last Rhodesian. Resonant of the U.S. #BlackLivesMatter movement, black students at the University of Cape Town created the #RhodesMustFall campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes on campus. They succeeded, and in the process sparked a national dialogue about obliterating old racist symbols.

To combat racism, one must eradicate and denigrate symbols of white supremacy. The Confederate flag is one such symbol. Following the same logic, we no longer should honor Confederates and other white supremacists who – for far too long – have had monuments, parks, buildings, and other places named after them. Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park and public buildings named after him in his home state of Tennessee seem an obvious place to begin. Why are there still monuments to the Confederate general who commanded troops in the notorious Fort Pillow Massacre and, after the Civil War, became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? Symbols matter. Dylann Roof knew it.

A version of this article originally appeared at In These Times.

About the Author

Peter Cole

Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Labor, Race & Technology in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published extensively on labor history and politics.

Author Archive Page


  1. It’s sobering to see the United States’ racial legacy compared unfavorably to that of South Africa, but it’s an important comparison. South Africa began coming out of apartheid’s shadow with a powerful Truth and Reconciliation Commission; it’s hard to imagine what something like that might look like in the United States today, but it would certainly be a start. Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I agree that a South African-style TRC would be of great use though, sadly, many in South Africa were frustrated with the imperfections of its TRC–most notably that many of the victims but quite few of the perpetrators came forward to testify. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply