The US nostalgia for racist regimes in Africa

The terrorist Dylan Roof is by no means the first white American to find common cause with racist colonial regimes in Africa.

Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black people inside a church in South Carolina on June 17, 2015, wearing a jacket embroidered with the flags of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

White supremacist terrorists are always constructed as isolated individuals who are not part of a general culture that encourages terrorist acts towards the “other” — be they immigrants, African-Americans, women. Their actions are largely explained as the result of mental-illness, and never carried out as part of a group or collective action. We do not wish to take responsibility for collective actions, and the general culture of white supremacy encouraged by the likes of Sean Hannity on television, Rush Limbaugh on the radio, and countless pastors on their church podiums.

A commonplace explanation why the likes of Dylann Roof shouldn’t be termed “terrorists” is that their violence isn’t political since it isn’t tied to a broader ideological agenda. This is wrong. In Roof’s case, the photograph of him sporting a jacket embroidered with the flags of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia shows this is especially implausible. Like the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, Roof clearly understood himself to be fighting for a political cause — white supremacism.

But Roof is by no means the first white American to find common cause with racist colonial regimes in Africa. That connection goes back a long way, and runs right from the top of the federal government to key figures in South Carolina politics.

Much is being made in the media of Roof’s interest in white supremacists in Africa. The danger is that this draws our attention away from all the good ol’ white supremacy in his very own state.

The white supremacist emblems on the terrorist’s shirt match the white supremacist emblem flying above the state capital of South Carolina, today as every day. Many people root the rise of the white, republican South Africa to the invention of the Dixiecrat party by South Carolina’s own Strom Thurmond, an arch-segregationist (with the typical secret mixed-race offspring) who ardently defended the apartheid South Africa government from the attacks of godless integrationists through the 1980s.

The Rhodesian and Apartheid South Africa solidarity from the US goes back to the rise of the new right in the late 70s and in particular the rise of Reagan and the onset of the ‘second’ or new Cold War in the 1980s. Apartheid South Africa was portrayed as an outpost of Western values and civilisation against  a sea of communist blacks in Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in particular.

Much money was channelled through libertarian and right-wing think tanks and groups, by both the American government and the apartheid government, to fund a PR campaign aimed at creating sympathy for whites under siege in South Africa and those left in Rhodesia (soon, it was imagined, to become a communist dictatorship). In particular there was a focus on elevating Jonas Savimbi and Unita into anti-communist freedom fighters, and later the IFP as a moderate pro-capitalist alternative to the communist ANC.

This type of thinking was typical of Jeane Kirkpatrick, a key neo-conservative ‘intellectual’ and America’s UN ambassador from 1981-1985. Kirkpatrick’s infamous distinction was between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes. ‘Authoritarian’ regimes were anti-communist and pro-capitalist and thus considered an outpost of liberty. This includes the regimes in central america, Pinochet-era Chile and, of course, apartheid South Africa. So-called ‘Totalitarian’ regimes were understood as the tools of the Soviets and had to be crushed at all costs, such as the MPLA in Angola, post-revolutionary Mozambique and of course South Africa’s own ANC.

The coalition behind this policy framework included people on the evangelical right, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who also are implicated in pro-apartheid preaching.

Money was channelled in particular to the Young Republicans and many future big names like Jack Abramoff made their political bones by doing propaganda work for the apartheid state. Many future republican bigwigs like Dick Cheney were very vocal in their support of apartheid as were southern politicians like Jessie Helms. If one trawls through the archives of such publications as Reason and National Review one does not have to look far for examples of pro-apartheid propaganda. Thomas Frank chronicles a lot of this stuff quite well.

Zimbabwe was viewed as a symptom of post-Vietnam weakness — abandoned to the Communists, because the West didn’t have the balls to take on Communism after Vietnam. The siege mentality in many respects parallels that of the Southern plantation class post-Civil War, which eventually gave rise to the KKK, i.e. our way of life and our womenfolk are under siege by a sea of blacks trying to take our ill-gotten gains.

The Republicans later pretended not to have taken such reactionary stances on apartheid, but the influence of all this propaganda remained, later enhanced by a wave of reactionary expatriates leaving South Africa and Zimbabwe and makes homes in the South. They set up their own websites and genocide-watch bullshit, spreading myths about the Boer genocide, later enhanced by Zanu-PF’s land reform policies. In this they made links to the militia movement, websites like Stormfront and the fringes of the American right, many so-called libertarians and paleo-conservatives as well as Zionist trolls like Pamela Geller.

Trawling the fringes of the internet, you find a lot of stuff connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe to the American experience, seen as examples of what happens when the government betrays whites to blacks who are then said to inflict savage violence on whites and destroy civilization. This stuff is found increasingly on the mainstream right these days, particularly with the rise of the Tea Party — but really they’re only tapping into a long tradition within white American conservatism.

Further Reading

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.

Victorious

After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

Breaking the chains of indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.

The two Africas

In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.

A vote of no confidence

Although calling for the cancellation of Nigeria’s February elections is counterintuitive, the truth is that they were marred by fraud, voter suppression, technical glitches and vote-buying.