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Why The Former African Country Rhodesia Resonates With White Supremacists

Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof wearing a jacket with patches of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa (top), and the former nation of Rhodesia (bottom).
Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof wearing a jacket with patches of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa (top), and the former nation of Rhodesia (bottom).

Last week’s mass shooting that left nine dead at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina has sparked a broader discussion about the nature of white supremacy in the United States. Some of the first photos of Dylann Roof – the man charged with the killings – are steeped in symbols of white supremacy, such as in Facebook profile picture in which he is wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia.

Rhodesia – located in an area now occupied by Zimbabwe – is often invoked by white supremacists as evidence of the superiority of white rule, and Roof published a manifesto expressing his white supremacist views on his website called “The Last Rhodesian.”

But why is Rhodesia such a powerful symbol for white supremacists? The answer lies in the country’s post-colonial history.

Shortly after its independence from Britain, the country came under white minority rule and imposed apartheid-style governance. This took place at the same time as the U.S. civil rights movement, where backlash generated a renewal of white supremacist groups that viewed Rhodesia and South Africa as ideal models.

“They look across, look at Africa, see what they would claim are successful white states, and can use those as an example,” said World Views contributor and University of Oklahoma College of International Studies assistant dean Rebecca Cruise.

Then, in 1980, Robert Mugabe assumed power in the country following the Bush War, which dissolved minority-ruled Rhodesia and created the majority-ruled Zimbabwe.

“In the early years of Zimbabwe … this was seen as a very big success story,” Cruise said. “[President Robert] Mugabe was seen as very popular … and very positive things [came] out of his rule.”

But after 35 years in power, Mugabe’s government has come under criticism for a number of political and economic problems. For some white supremacists, these problems represent the failure of black majority rule.

“[White supremacists] can say that under white rule, things were better … and once the blacks took over, then this has led to bad government and those sorts of things. This is obviously a falsehood. There’s much more to the story than this,” Cruise said.

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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