Charleston Suspect Dylann Roof's Idolization of Rhodesia and South Africa Rooted in Right-Wing History
The killings in Charleston, South Carolina, last night have renewed discussion about the threats racism and white supremacists continue to pose to our society.
The chief suspect in the shootings, Dylann Storm Roof, reportedly said, “You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go,” before opening fire on black churchgoers, signifying a racist intent to the attack.
Online, it emerged that Roof's Facebook image depicts him wearing a jacket bearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia:
Today, it is unusual to see right-wing ideologues openly identify with white supremacist regimes abroad. It is more common in this region to see people sporting the Confederate flag, which flies outside the South Carolina statehouse. But for years, the American right allied itself to these racist governments, holding them up as beacons of hope amidst Third World chaos and Communist powers.
Defending Racist Regimes Abroad
As much of the world was turning against South Africa's apartheid regime and enacting boycotts and sanctions, the 1984 College Republican platform boasted that “socio-economic and political developments” were “resulting in the betterment of the lives of all the peoples of South Africa.”
Disgraced Republican super lobbyist Jack Abramoff traveled to South Africa and met with pro-apartheid groups; he later helped open the think tank International Freedom Foundation, which dedicated its resources to undermining the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela. He moved to what is now called Namibia to produce a propaganda film titled Red Scorpion, which glamorized fighters in Angola who were allied to South Africa.
Right-wing activist Grover Norquist, who today runs the powerful Americans for Tax Reform, also traveled to South Africa in a bid to undermine the boycott movement. He became a ghostwriter for pro-apartheid Jonas Savimbi, and upon returning to the United States, he kept a “I'd rather be killing commies” bumper-sticker on his briefcase, in a reference to the anti-apartheid guerillas in Southern Africa.
Another figure who allied himself to white supremacist regimes was a young Jeff Flake. Flake, today a Republican senator from Arizona, testified against an anti-apartheid resolution in the Utah State Senate and later worked as a D.C. lobbyist representing the South African mining industry. He also represented a uranium plant in Namibia that was targeted by activists due to discrimination.
Jerry Falwell, the godfather of the resurgent Christian Right, faced off with Jesse Jackson, who was mobilizing for the boycotts of South Africa, on the ABC News program Nightline. Falwell insisted that South Africa was making progress and that by targeting it for boycotts and sanctions Jackson was ignoring atrocities in other countries and singling out a white-led country in South Africa.
The case of Rhodesia represented a singular appeal to the global Christian right. As Norman H. Murdoch writes in his book Christian Warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe: The Salvation Army and African Liberation, he explains the ideology of the country's leader Ian Smith as believing that “to be Christian was, in his mind, to be white, European, and anti-Marxist.” William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review, went on expenses-paid trips to Rhodesia and also made trips to South Africa. Of South Africa he wrote that the apartheid system has “evolved into a serious program designed to cope with a melodramatic dilemma on whose solution hangs, quite literally, the question of life or death for the white man in South Africa.”
Ugly Echoes Of History
While these major figures would be unlikely ever to own up to their support for the racist governments in Africa, you occasionally see evidence that mainstream right-wingers harbor resentment at the rise of democracy to replace white supremacy. A RedState diary in 2010 blames former president Jimmy Carter for failing to support Rhodesia's government. Upon the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich had to write a vocal defense of the civil rights leader due to the amount of right-wing hate that was spouted upon his passing. Some on the right today like Breitbart writer Virge Hall claim that Roof's Facebook photo must be photoshopped.
But most of the American right today will never admit to its history of naked support for white supremacy and glamorizing of regimes and systems that systematically disenfranchised darker people.
Yet we should not pretend that this history does not influence the right-wing's political movements today. While a series of Republican presidential candidates made statements about the shooting, not a single one noted racism as a likely motivation. In the way the right has pledged its fealty to an increasingly racist government in Israel, or the contortions it makes to deny the legacy of racial injustices in this country, one hears an ugly echo of the Falwells and Buckleys. That's an ideology that ultimately, as we are seeing in Charleston, has a death toll.