South African leaders: Pro-apartheid flag sign of ‘misdirected anger’

Updated 3:38 PM EDT, Tue June 30, 2015
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(CNN) —  

The debate regarding the prominence of the Confederate flag added an international element when photos of Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine people last week in the Charleston church massacre, surfaced of him wearing flags from apartheid-era South Africa.

But South African leaders and experts say the flag is not as well received in their country as the Confederate flag is in the U.S. – and that it certainly isn’t flown on Capitol grounds. And they are working to keep it that way.

Last week, photos appeared online of Roof wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa, which legally discriminated against blacks and other minorities until institutionalized discrimination was outlawed in 1994. Roof was also seen with photos of the Confederate flag, which has again risen to national debate as people cite it as a source of influence for Roof’s racist views.

The flag of the apartheid government was flown in South Africa until 1994, the year Roof was born. It was replaced after the fall of the existing government, but it still finds sympathy among U.S. white supremacists, who identify with the South African whites that they say are now under siege, said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But in South Africa, the flag is mainly celebrated by those with “misdirected anger,” said Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the African National Congress, the ruling party of the post-apartheid South African Parliament since former President Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994.

“You will never find it on government property. But you can see it being flown in the meetings of ultra right wing groups, but not in public,” Mantashe told CNN. “It is not something that is socially widespread here.”

Eusebius McKaiser is a Johannesburg-based writer and author of “A Bantu In My Bathroom,” a collection of essays on race. He said many South Africans wanted to believe that the photo of Roof wearing the flag was photoshopped.

“Judging from social media and talk radio responses, thus far, many South Africans were indeed surprised when a photo of Dylann Roof surfaced that included the old South African flag on his jacket,” told CNN. “The surprise is innocuous in one sense: We are simply not used to our racism being exported to America.”

However, McKaiser said he does understand why Roof could connect with the South African flag.

“The old South African flag symbolizes brute anti-black racism, and its longer colonial history from which it flows,” he said. “To that extent, the antiquated and divisive symbolism of the Confederate flag in the U.S. finds ideological affinity with the old South African flag. Both flags show off past injustice and neither flag represents the idealism of breaking from divisive pasts in search of new, inclusive realities.”

Although the old South African flag is not celebrated publicly by leaders in South Africa, some citizens felt that Roof’s use of it was a sign of disrespect.

“I think the desire for the photo to be inauthentic speaks to an underlying belief that the flag is tainted by the association with Dylann Roof,” McKaiser said. “This assumption, in turn, is deeply tragic because it (re)imagines the old South African flag as a symbol of dignity.”

And despite the decline of the flag’s public presence over the last two decades, it is possible – and maybe even likely – that the South African flag will rise again as South Africans grow nostalgic for the past, said Jonny Steinberg, an associate professor at the University of Oxford African Studies Centre.

“It will no doubt appear again; there is so much attention at the moment on the symbols of the South African past,” he told CNN. “I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the old flag is used again as a form of aggressive mourning for the old order.”