The Facebook profile photo of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who is believed to have shot nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has gone viral. Not much is known about Roof, but the jacket he dons in this picture speaks volumes.
The two flags on the right side of his jacket are symbols of the white nationalist movement, representing African colonies when they were ruled by minority white settlers through subjugation of the majority black locals.
Roof’s jacket represents Zimbabwe and South Africa’s painful history of colonization. Ideologically, their symbolism is congruent with a survivor’s account of Roof’s attack, in which he allegedly said, “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.”
The top flag, which the Anti-Defamation League considers a white supremacist symbol, represented South Africa while it was under the control of the Nationalist Party, which was composed of white Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch colonizers. During this period, from 1948 to 1994, the Nationalist Party enforced apartheid, the codified segregation of whites and blacks. Under apartheid, black South Africans were forcibly resettled, a large swath of the black South African population was killed and political opponents were imprisoned, the most famous example being Nelson MandelaIt was only after Mandela was freed and helped to negotiate the end of apartheid with the Nationalist Party in the early ’90s that the country became independent, with a transition to Mandela’s African National Congress party after the first democratic elections.
The bottom flag represents Rhodesia, the name for Zimbabwe when it too was under colonial rule. Named after British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, Rhodesia is a perfect example of reckless fractionalization of colonized territories. Colonizers used it to mine valuable minerals and metals before splintering it into Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia, and Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe.
Southern Rhodesia became simply known as Rhodesia from 1964 to 1979. It initially remained an official British colony; after Zimbabweans unilaterally declared independence in 1965, it went unrecognized by the international community as an independent country until 1979After a violent independence struggle, Robert Mugabe was voted in as prime minister and the country was finally recognized as independent by the international community in 1980.
These kinds of flags have become powerful symbols for white supremacists. The website Stormfront, also known as White Pride Worldwide, has a forum for the different flags supremacists have collected, with one user posting, “I would like to get a Rhodesian flag, and the pre-1918 German flag (Kaiser Reich).”
As more information about Roof unfurls, it seems increasingly hard to deny this was a racially motivated act of terrorism.