Nine African-Americans attending an evening Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, US were murdered in cold blood last week. US news outlets say that South Carolina resident Dylann Roof, a young white man, has confessed to the killings. He hasn’t been convicted in a court of law and so his guilt has not yet been proven. But pictures of Roof have surfaced wearing a jacket adorned with badges of the flags of apartheid South Africa and of Rhodesia, and of him posing with a Confederate flag — the emblem of the southern US states which seceded from the United States in 1861 to defend the institution of human slavery. When it comes to white supremacy, Roof is a global citizen.
My last set of postings here were about the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). After the application of a great deal of pressure from many quarters and a lot of good, hard debate, it has since come down. This posting is about the fact that the odious Confederate flag and versions thereof still officially fly in seven US states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. The Washington Post ran a great piece about this.
UCT had the wisdom to remove a symbol of racist oppression, elitism, and callous barbarism from its campus. Will Americans have the wisdom to tackle their own outdated symbols of a horrible past?
Roof is 21 years old. That means that he was born in 1994 — same year, of course, as majority rule and democracy in South Africa. So he can have no personal memory of apartheid, or of white Rhodesia, which came to an official end 14 years before he was born. There is no way that Roof found his information about South Africa and Rhodesia anywhere but the internet. No classroom in the US would teach approvingly about white supremacy in southern Africa. Students in American high school classrooms can’t even find southern Africa on a map — world history and geography are literally foreign concepts to them now. I know. I have to start my university-level classes in southern African history off with a map quiz of African countries and capital cities, and my students learn them so that they can pass the quiz. It’s not knowledge they have when they come into my classes.
So Roof’s path to sewing those badges on his jacket, I’m guessing, started out with US Racism 101 somewhere and then led him, click by foul click, to and through the disgusting webpages that cling like excrement to the internet, which rhapsodise about the good old days of white Rhodesia and South Africa when whites still cracked their sjamboks over blacks. It is heartbreaking — even in the midst of a killing season the likes of which America has perhaps never before witnessed, at least not in the full technicolour of the social media age — that the stench of the old South Africa and of racist Rhodesia still have the power to inspire someone like Roof.
There’s another southern African echo in the Charleston tragedy. The US media is most eager to know if the families of the slain will forgive the perpetrator in time to announce it on the evening news. Shades of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the camera lenses shoved in the faces of the mothers of the Gugulethu Seven and the wives of the Cradock Four. The post-tragedy media hunt for forgiveness has become a great thirst. Families now have only one acceptable response in their weeping and that is to forgive really fast. I do not denigrate whatever the responses of the grieving Charleston families and communities to this horrible act might be; they may well feel and express true forgiveness, in all its complexities, for the perpetrator. But the TRC was a serious, institutional attempt to deal with inflicted pain, loss and history. There was an elaborate process and a set of requirements for disclosure, etc. and some support for families. Or at least for some families (we recall those left out of the TRC framework, and the long hard fight for the miniscule reparations payments). In the US, however, when it is people of colour who have been wronged, we just skip over all that, and try to slap weeping and forgiveness together as fast as possible, like cheese on a hamburger. This is the media age of the TRC-lite. Very, very lite.
I never thought I would agree with former Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney on anything. But even he (along with President Barack Obama and many others) is calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina state capitol building to honour the latest slain of Charleston. Anyone interested in the power of public history should follow this debate — 150 years after the end of the US Civil War there are still — sadly, tragically — millions of white Americans whose hearts thrill with pride at the sight of a Confederate flag flapping in the breeze. As in many other things, Americans should learn from progressive and democratic South Africans and work for the day that these symbols of hatred, wilful ignorance and evil come down. Now, now, now.