Flags Change. Then What? | Sojourners

Flags Change. Then What?

Image via MyImages - Micha/Shutterstock
Image via /Shutterstock

As someone with family roots and half a childhood spent in the deep south, seeing the Confederate flag lowered from South Carolina’s capitol felt profoundly satisfying. Yet it bothers me to admit that I wasn’t particularly surprised to see photographs of the Charleston shooter brandishing the “Stars and Bars” in the first place. The emblem that some still claim as heritage seems a standard issue accessory for an American white supremacist.

No, it was another flag displayed on his jacket that startled, then angered me — the horizontal stripes in blue, white, and orange that represent apartheid-era South Africa.           

Dylann Roof’s life barely overlapped with a world that included apartheid — the legal, state-sanctioned segregation that dictated where people could live, what jobs they could hold, whom they could marry, and just about every other aspect of their lives based on the color of their skin. Roof was born in April 1994, the same month that South Africa held its first democratic elections when people of all races could vote. The country elected Nelson Mandela its first black president then, to the delight of many, but certainly not all, people worldwide. South Africans have a name for the children who arrived around the same time as their new nation. They call them the “Born Frees.” At 21 years, they are now — like their country — coming of age. They are Roof’s contemporaries.

I lived in South Africa, welcomed and embraced by people of every hue with a warmth that surprised me, given the undeniably pink tones of my own skin. While I was there in 2010, the country hosted the World Cup, drawing a global spotlight. I watched South Africans proudly unite behind their redesigned flag that had been adopted in 1994. The bands on this flag incorporate black, green, and yellow, colors found in the banner of the African National Congress — Mandela’s political party. In a reconciliatory gesture, it also includes blue and white from the old flag. People decorated everywhere and everything — their homes, their cars, themselves, even the manes of the cart horses that hauled away lawn clippings in the Cape Town suburbs — with the flag of the new South Africa. The blue-white-orange combination is now relegated to historical contexts and to only one small South African town: Orania, a whites-only rural community of 1,000, established when apartheid and white rule were dying out. If Roof wished to establish himself in a country that legislated his racism, he chose a nation now extinct.         

Flags are only symbols, of course. Chucking one for another does not automatically overhaul a society’s deeply entrenched structural oppression. Lowering a flag and relegating it, belatedly, to a museum does not change people’s hearts and minds. Under South Africa’s new flag, the Born Frees are inheriting a country awash in contradiction. How free can this generation be with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world? With the rampant violence that especially plagues black townships and is frequently directed against women and girls? With the remnants of a broken school system that was not designed to educate all its citizens equally?

Before he became South Africa’s prime minister, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd — known as the prime architect of apartheid — served as minister for native affairs. In that role, he oversaw education for the country’s black population.

Verwoerd once proclaimed, “There is no place for [the Bantu, or black] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labor. … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”

It was clear in which sphere Verwoerd intended for blacks to live. They did not appear to even be children to him. Look at his choice of pronouns. Why should a black child learn math when it cannot use the skill?

This dehumanization of Africans, the belief that they were savages to be subdued by others, drove hundreds of years of colonialism and brutality on the continent. It continues to drive the violence that blacks in South Africa perpetrate against one another, and that men inflict upon women. Graça Machel, human rights activist and Mandela's widow, has said that, in spite of the country’s well-intended Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the late 1990s, South Africa has not taken the time to seriously revisit the psychological and emotional damage apartheid inflicted on its men and women. It was a system designed to dehumanize, and people are still suffering from the lingering effects of that dehumanization. A person dealing with his own self-hatred is more likely to try to destroy the humanity he sees in others, or to fail to recognize it in another soul in the first place.

In Charleston, the ability to humanize another soul could have won out. Roof told authorities he nearly changed his plans after church members welcomed him so warmly to their Bible study. Instead, in that moment at Emmanuel AME Church, dehumanization prevailed. A shooter railed against blacks who “rape our women” and proceeded to kill six African-American women, and three African-American men. Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson were not women to Roof. They were no more human to him than a black child who might want to learn mathematics was to Hendrik Verwoerd.

Dehumanization cuts across national boundaries. It flies many flags, and stubbornly hangs on even after those antiquated symbols are lowered. But everywhere, it still seems to follow along color lines. Racism did not end when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, nor when Barack Obama became president of the United States of America. They represent progress, certainly, but they are symbols as well. Racism can only end when we who have had privilege conferred upon us on the backs of our sisters and brothers confront, honestly and without equivocation, the hate behind the heritage.

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