Old apartheid flags never really die
But it keeps popping up elsewhere, in sinister contexts beyond our control. Such as in South Carolina in the United States, where a white supremacist killed nine black church-goers last week.
A furore over flags is raging in Charleston, South Carolina, after 21-year-old Dylann Roof murdered the congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof told his victims he had to kill blacks because they were “taking over”.
In a Facebook photo, he wore patches on his jacket depicting the apartheid-era South African flag, and the white-ruled Rhodesian flag. On his website called “Last Rhodesian”, he is seen bearing the Confederate battle flag used during the American Civil War, which had to do with southern states challenging the authority of the national government in prohibiting slavery.
Charleston has a special place in slave history – it imported more slaves from Africa than any other American city. The Civil War started there in 1861. It was the heart of the Confederacy. It also happens to have one of the oldest Jewish congregations in America, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1749 across the street from the oldest Catholic Church in the South, St Mary’s.
Given its racist connotations, it is amazing that the Confederate flag still flies proudly today on the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol. Until 2000 it actually flew atop the Capitol dome, but in response to protests, lawmakers then moved it to a memorial to Confederate soldiers just outside the statehouse as part of a compromise according to which a monument to African-Americans was also added.
A flag is not just cloth and dye. People will march and be killed for what it represents – whether American, British, Spanish, Israeli, or any other flag. The issues sound familiar to those in South Africa around our symbols: Does a flag represent heritage or hate?
A Winthrop University poll found that 73 per cent of South Carolinian whites want the flag to remain where it is, while 61 per cent of blacks want it taken down. For some whites who trace their ancestry back to the Civil War, it represents heritage and pride. Chris Sullivan, a member of the Sons of the Confederacy says: “It’s a symbol of family and my ancestors who defended the state from invasion. It was about standing up to a central government.”
Some South Africans feel pride towards the flags of Boer republics which were incorporated into the old SA flag, saying that that is part of who they are and it symbolises their own freedom that they fought bravely for.
The white supremacist movement is international and growing, warned commentator Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the New York Times this week: “Americans tend to view attacks like the mass murder in Charleston as isolated hate crimes [by] a deranged racist or group of zealots… unconnected to a broader movement.”
But Roof was expressing sentiments that unite white nationalists from the United States and Canada to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The end of white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa, they believe, foreshadowed an apocalyptic future for all white people: a “white genocide” that “must be stopped before it’s too late”.
A white supremacist mantra appears on billboards in the American South and in Internet chat rooms, condemning multiculturalism and proclaiming: “Diversity = White Genocide”. A neo-Confederate group, the League of the South, calls for laws against interracial marriage.
White supremacists displaying the apartheid-era South African flag, have participated in “White Man Marches” to raise awareness.
Lowering the South African apartheid flag in 1994 did not erase it, nor confine it only to museums or heritage sites, or even keep it within our own borders. Sadly, we have not seen the last of it, nor the impossible conundrums which racism creates.
Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity