The first image the American public saw of suspected Charleston gunman Dylann Roof was that of a scowling young man with a bowl haircut who wore a jacket emblazoned with the flags of two white minority governments.
The top patch on the jacket’s right breast was the flag of South Africa’s Apartheid government. The patch below it, with its three vertical stripes of green, white and green, was the flag of the white-controlled colony of Rhodesia that later became Zimbabwe. People who track extremists say both flags are symbols of the white supremacist movement.
The 21-year-old gunman would have been about a year old when Apartheid rule came to an end in South Africa in 1994.
Rhodesia, having gained independence from Britain and taken the name Zimbabwe in 1980, was already an entry in modern world history textbooks by the time Roof was born.
So how did Roof become so fixated on a white-controlled British colony that collapsed decades before he came of age?
The domain lastrhodesian.com was registered by Roof earlier this year, and the site was where he allegedly posted a chilling, racist manifesto that surfaced over the weekend. The name alone is indicative of how much the former colony influenced his thinking.
“He made it clear in a number of ways that he linked himself to the white-ruled governments of South Africa and Rhodesia and conceived of himself, apparently, as someone fighting against the sort of things that brought those governments down,” Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, told TPM in a phone interview Monday.
Patches on Dylann Roof’s jacket as seen in a photo from his Facebook page. TPM composite.
Pitcavage suggested Rhodesia may have come across Roof’s radar via a white nationalist group called the Northwest Front, which was that was referenced in his alleged manifesto. The group describes itself as “a political organization of Aryan men and women who recognize that an independent and sovereign White nation in the Pacific Northwest is the only possibility for the survival of the White race on this continent.”
The founder of the Northwest Front, Harold Covington, travelled to Rhodesia in the 1970s and created a white supremacist political party there before he was expelled for spreading anti-Semitic propaganda, according to Pitcavage.
Covington’s brother, Ben, told the Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2008 interview that the white supremacist leader likely accomplished even less than that:
In different blogs and writings, he was always bragging, “Oh, I was a mercenary in Rhodesia and I went out and did all this fighting.” But to the best of my knowledge, according to the letters he wrote to my parents, he was a file clerk. He certainly never fired a shot in anger. He started agitating over there, and the [white-led] Ian Smith government said, “We have problems enough without this nutcase,” and they bounced him.
In his alleged manifesto, Roof suggested he was familiar with Covington’s group and its stated goals, if not with the man himself.
“Here I would also like to touch on the idea of a Norhtwest [sic] Front,” the manifesto read. “I think this idea is beyond stupid. Why should I for example, give up the beauty and history of my state to go to the Norhthwest? [sic] To me the whole idea just parralells [sic] the concept of White people running to the suburbs. The whole idea is pathetic and just another way to run from the problem without facing it.”
Another white supremacist preoccupied with Rhodesia and the geographic separation of the races is based in Roof’s hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, The Intercept noted Monday. The news site spoke with Robert Whitaker, who is the founder of Bob’s Underground Graduate Seminar, or BUGS, which the SPLC designates as one of 19 active hate group in South Carolina.
“South Africa made the same mistake that we do in the U.S. They tried to work with republican moderates,” Whitaker told the news site, adding that “South Africa and Rhodesia were doomed from the start.”
Whitaker denied to The Intercept that his thinking influenced Roof and there’s no evidence to suggest that the two men had any contact despite their proximity and shared ideology. But Roof’s alleged manifesto echoed Whitaker’s belief that the U.S. may be doomed if it continues to prioritize racial equality.
“Look at South Africa, and how such a small minority held the black in apartheid for years and years,” the manifesto read. “Speaking of South Africa, if anyone thinks that think [sic] will eventually just change for the better, consider how in South Africa they have affirmative action for the black population that makes up 80 percent of the population. It is far from being too late for America or Europe…But by no means should we wait any longer to take drastic action.”