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The racist flags on Dylann Roof's jacket, explained

Dylann Storm Roof, with the apartheid South African (top) and Rhodesian flags.
Dylann Storm Roof, with the apartheid South African (top) and Rhodesian flags.
(Facebook)

Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old man suspected of walking into a historically black church and massacring nine parishioners, is in all likelihood a white supremacist. We know that not just from his actions: the above photo of Roof, identified by the Charleston Post and Courier, shows him wearing a jacket with the flags of two avowedly racist nations.

That would be apartheid South Africa, which you might be aware of, and Rhodesia, which is a little less known. Here's a guide to what those flags mean — and why a man who appears to have committed a vicious hate crime would sport them on his jacket.

Rhodesia

Rhodesia's flag. (Sagredo)

Rhodesia used to be where today's Zimbabwe is. It was a terribly racist country, akin to apartheid South Africa, and became a sort of cause celebre for white supremacists in the 1960s and 1970s — one they still mythologize today.

After the area was colonized by the British in the late 1890s, a racial caste system quickly emerged in what would become Rhodesia, where white people controlled the commanding political heights, as well as most of the land, while black people served as peasants. In 1965, white natives led by a man named Ian Smith declared independence from Britain, and founded a country named Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes (the British imperialist who led the colonization of the area).

In the United States, where the civil rights movement was winning historic victories, white supremacists saw the viciously racist Rhodesian government as a victory worth celebrating. By 1976, "there was a sprawling proliferation of pro-Rhodesian organizations in the United States," University of Houston historian Gerald Horne writes; "The transatlantic question of race was the essential glue that held the lobby together."

In 1979, the Rhodesian government was toppled by an armed uprising — no surprise, considering black people outnumbered their white counterparts by about 25:1 (the equivalent number in South Africa was 7:1, per Horne). But the new Zimbabwean government had serious problems. Its long serving leader, Robert Mugabe, has become a nasty authoritarian: Zimbabwe under Mugabe has been an economic basket-case, suffering some of the world's worst hyper-inflation, and a human rights disaster.

And that is why people like Roof mythologize Rhodesia today: they see it (falsely, of course) as proof that countries are better off when white people run them. Earlier this year, about 150 people on a white supremacist web forum volunteered online to "found" a "new country" in Africa. They called it, naturally, "New Rhodesia."

The lesson of Rhodesia, for white supremacists, is that black people are a threat to a healthy white-run society. And they need to be kept down.

South Africa

South African flag under apartheid. (Parliament of South Africa)

The story of apartheid South Africa is a bit more familiar. Twice colonized, first by Dutch settlers and then by the British Empire, post-independence South Africa was dominated by the white minority, with those of Dutch heritage known as Afrikaners. Apartheid, the formal segregation system imposed by the Afrikaner regime, was so vile that even Rhodesia's government distanced itself from it. A resistance movement led by Nelson Mandela eventually toppled the apartheid government in 1994, and South Africa is a functional (if troubled) democracy today.

But American white supremacists take similar lessons from apartheid South Africa as they do from Rhodesia.

"The White people made a great nation of South Africa and Black people thrived and prospered there," David Duke, the infamous former Louisiana state representative and head of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote in a 2010 post on his website. "Meanwhile, in the rest of Africa, there were constant genocides, ethnic repressions, dictatorships, abject poverty, disease epidemics, wholesale crime and murder."

South Africa's flags are inextricably bound up in these narratives. The old South African flag, pictured above, was "an important [symbol] of white identity," George Mason University's John Nauright explains, containing smaller flags marking both Dutch and British identity but nothing marking black heritage. The post-apartheid South African flag, with its bright stripes and prominent V, was designed to represent a unified South Africa free of the last vestiges of colonial hierarchy.

So Roof's conscious decision to display the old South African flag is a means of asserting his affinity with the apartheid regime, likely standing in for a broader belief that the world is better off when whites control its commanding heights.

"Oh god, the old South African flag," Tauriq Moosa, a South African journalist, wrote after seeing the patch on Roof's jacket. "I'm literally nauseated."

WATCH: President Obama on South Carolina

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