In conversations and email exchanges with The New York Times, some prominent social-media figures and companies selling Rhodesia-themed merchandise denied trafficking in white-power messages, or said they had done so unwittingly. A few said their affinity for Rhodesia derived from the government’s supposed anticommunist stance.
But outside observers of this Rhodesia revival cite a far more disturbing inspiration for it: Dylann Roof, the American white supremacist who killed nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C. church in June 2015. Roof, who was sentenced to death last year, had penned an online manifesto, which appeared on a website called The Last Rhodesian, with photographs of himself wearing a jacket with a patch of the green-and-white Rhodesian flag.
Demand for Rhodesian-themed apparel has since increased. Today one retailer, the Commissar Clothing Company, offers “Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia Again” hoodies and T-shirts and others that read “Be a Man Among Men,” a Rhodesian Army recruiting slogan now used by hate groups. The online store was taken down in March, but its merchandise is still available on the company’s eBay storefront.
Another retailer of Rhodesia-themed goods, the Western Outlands Supply Company, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist hate group,” was formerly known as Right Wing Death Squad and sold similar fare, in addition to apparel featuring Crusader crosses and medieval symbols like those seen at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally last year.
Commissar goes further, offering shirts that say “Slot Floppies,” a phrase that is sometimes used as a hashtag on Instagram and other social media platforms to promote Rhodesian-themed posts and messaging. “Floppy,” in 1970s Rhodesia, was the equivalent of an unprintable racist epithet in the United States, while “slot” was Rhodesian military slang for “shoot.”
When The Times asked Instagram whether #MakeZimbabweRhodesiaAgain and other hashtags violated community standards, the social-media company issued this statement: “We have blocked these hashtags for violating our hate-speech policies,” it said, “and they will no longer be searchable on Instagram.”
If such symbols and slogans, for a North American audience, lack the instant shock effect of a Confederate or Nazi flag, that is part of the point. Commissar Clothing’s website, now shuttered, explained its products’ wink-and-nod appeal: “We think you should be able to tell the world about you without saying a word,” it read. “The great thing about most of our designs is that they are essentially inside jokes and references that the general public will not understand.”
When reached by email, Commissar Clothing’s owner, Alexander Smyth, said, “I do not support or condone racism of any sort.”
The online apparel company FireForce Ventures, whose website is registered to the Canadian Army reservist Henry Lung, offers reproduction Rhodesian flags, recruiting posters and various patches of the Rhodesian security forces. Lung, who is of Chinese descent, told The Times, “I see the veteran community, the Rhodesian community, as one to be honored,” but insisted that he was not a white supremacist, and that he was “just trying to make a little bit of extra cash.”
Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said the uptick of pro-Rhodesian messaging is a purposeful amplification of the ideology and practice of “racist colonial regimes” — and possibly even an exhortation to war.
“All the talk right now among people in the alt-right and the broader white supremacist movement is about the need for a white ethno-state,” she said. “And when you praise Rhodesia, in this context, what you’re praising is violence to that end.”
“There were no defenses for apartheid regimes and colonialism 20 years ago,” Beirich added. “And now all of a sudden we’re seeing this stuff pop up.”
Southern Rhodesia was established in 1923 as a British colony named for Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in consolidating diamond mines. By the 1960s, as much of Africa rapidly decolonized around it, the colonial government faced pressure from London to hold free elections and accede to majority rule.
The colonial government refused. In 1965 it renamed itself Rhodesia and broke from the United Kingdom with the express purpose of maintaining white rule. The new government was led by Ian Smith, who declared that “the white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.”
Smith’s government soon found itself at war with a black insurgency, fighting for representative government and self-rule. Many of the fighters received weapons from China or the Soviet Union. Rhodesia’s government labeled them “communists” and “terrorists.”
“It’s a complicated story,” said Gerald Horne, author of “From the Barrel of a Gun” and a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Houston. “But of course the apartheid side knew what sold in Washington, so they portrayed it as a battle against communism because it got pulses racing in the United States.”
The battle for perception is playing out again now on social media, which pro-Rhodesia accounts or commenters are using to rewrite Rhodesian history in gentle tones. On Jan. 27, the Instagram page @historicalwarfareinc posted the photo below, claiming it depicted an army officer deciding the fate of a prisoner.
The photograph is well known. It was taken in September 1977 by an Associated Press photographer, J. Ross Baughman, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for capturing the brutality of the Rhodesian Army.
That Instagram caption provides far less context than the version submitted for the Pulitzer, which read: “Lt. Graham Baillie raps a small wooden bat against his leg after using it to beat Moffat Ncube, a local teacher, political leader and now a bound, unconscious prisoner slumped against the wall of schoolhouse, 20 September 1977.”
It added: “Ncube reportedly later died after three days of brutal, nonstop torture.”
As of April 6, the photo with the more anodyne caption had nearly 1,850 likes.
Some pro-Rhodesia voices on social media are not so subtle.
Last December Joseph Smith, a 22-year-old resident of Rexburg, Idaho, who told The Times he had not heard of Rhodesia until 18 months ago, posted a YouTube video that he said offered “a quick rundown” of Rhodesian history. The video has received more than 180,000 views.
Comments on it included calls for Rhodesia to return, claims that the West betrayed Rhodesia and outright hostility to the idea of black-majority rule. With more than 1,700 comments in just the last three months, the discussion quickly devolved into a stream of racial and ethnic slurs against African-Americans and Jews, calling for them to be shoved into gas chambers and ovens.
In an email to The Times, Smith wrote that he felt persecuted and that he has found Rhodesian themes compelling. “I’m sure you’re aware these days being a conservative heterosexual white male is rather unpopular in the eyes of many,” and that “this is the demographic that caused Rhodesia to thrive as well as it did for as long as it did.”
He insisted, however, that his attraction to Rhodesian nostalgia was not racist. “I do not think that it’s a race issue though,” he wrote. “Partly I just feel like white people like having a team to root for these days.”
An examination of retailers and social-media accounts showed a varied understanding and mixed approaches to addressing the meanings in the pro-Rhodesia messaging.
The Selous Armory, a Massachusetts apparel company run by Sean Lucht, a Boston firefighter and Marine veteran, sold a red-and-white “Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia Again” patch online until recently. The site also sold T-shirts with sayings like “Rhodesians Never Die” and “Apply Violence” with the Rhodesian Foreign Legion logo, in addition to “Be a Man Among Men” posters. When The Times reached out to Lucht for comment about the business in March, all the merchandise was stripped from the website and an announcement was published on its home page saying, “The Selous Armory was always a place for military history/humor and never a place for hate.” The announcement added that the Selous Armory had ceased all operations. Lucht did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The Instagram account of retired Delta Force master sergeant Larry Vickers also displays an affinity for Rhodesia.
With roughly 900,000 followers on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, Vickers — a marksmanship instructor who says he trains special-operations forces, law enforcement and civilians — attracts a social-media audience with an interest in military history and firearms.
On Instagram, Vickers first publicly professed his fondness for Rhodesian history in September 2014, posting a photo of Rhodesian soldiers returning from a raid. Since 2017, he has shared many photos of Belgian FAL rifles painted in the splotchy yellow-and-green camouflage favored by Rhodesian troops in the Bush War of the 1970s.
The caption on one photo from last year expressed reverence: “Respect and remember,” it read. In a telephone interview, Vickers told The Times that his attraction to the Rhodesian security forces stems from their having carried out “some of the most daring special operations missions in history on a shoestring.” He has repeatedly referred to the fall of Rhodesia as “the greatest tragedy of the post-World War II era.” His own YouTube videos on the Rhodesian rifle have nearly 300,000 page views. Racist comments and calls for racist violence cluttered the comments sections — until he was asked about them by The Times.
Vickers said he was unaware of the comments, and has since turned the comments function on some videos off. On March 16, he went a step further and issued a public rebuke on his Facebook page, saying, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if your opinion is racist and demeaning you can go elsewhere as that is not welcome here.” It appears that he has not deleted any of his Instagram posts mentioning Rhodesia.
Vickers’s apparent concern was shared by the owner of DS Arms, an Illinois-based firearms manufacturer, which, in March, wrote on Instagram that it will be releasing a “Rhodie tribute rifle” along with T-shirts featuring the “Be a Man Among Men” Rhodesian recruiting insignia. DS Arms also sells a challenge coin embossed with the same emblem.
The owner of the company, David Selvaggio, said in a telephone interview that he did not know what had been driving recent online interest in Rhodesia. “I’ve been told that yes, there’s young guys getting into it and they’re showing an interest in it. I’m not sure why.”
When told that the Rhodesian rifle had become a totem for American white supremacists, Selvaggio pleaded ignorance. “What I remember of it is seeing pictures of the FALs on the guys over there fighting. I don’t even know what they were fighting, except against communism, from what I was told. Maybe I need to do some studying on my history here.”
He added that he hoped the next Dylann Roof wouldn’t carry one of his company’s rifles. “That does concern me,” he said. “I don’t want anybody saying, ‘Hey, this is a call to arms, and we have to use a FAL, and we’re for this crazy wacko group.’ That’s not us.”
For Beirich, it’s impossible to pay tribute to the Rhodesian security forces and their equipment without also glorifying the ideology the country was built on.
“In the same way you don’t have people glorifying Nazi soldiers without understanding what the regime fought for,” Beirich said. “You can’t separate fighting for the Confederacy from the ultimate goal of the Confederacy.”