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How an old Dutch flag became a racist symbol

Friday 26 June 2015

Jun 22nd 2015, 23:50 by M.S.

REACTIONARIES are fond of defunct flags. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist arrested for the murder of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston last week, displays a number of them in his internet postings. On a website he created to advertise his racist beliefs (since taken down), he can be seen holding America’s most commonly displayed ex-flag: the battle standard of the Confederacy, flown by the pro-slavery side in America’s civil war. More interestingly, in a Facebook post, Mr Roof wears a jacket emblazoned with the former flags of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. The former South African flag is the most curious of all, because it is based on a flag that is itself an ex-flag, one flown by the 17th-century Dutch republic. And in a strange twist, that former Dutch flag has since acquired reactionary and racist overtones of its own. How?

Flag of South Africa, 1928-1994

The former flag of the Union of South Africa flew between 1928, in the early days of the white-dominated regime, and 1994, when apartheid was dismantled and non-whites gained political equality. Its design reflected the country’s historical roots as a white-ruled European colony. It also encapsulated the centuries-long conflict between two groups of white residents, those descended from the original Dutch settlers (known as Boers) and those tied to the English who arrived later. The design’s background is formed by one of the flags flown by the United Provinces of the Netherlands when it was a global imperial power during the 17th century: three horizontal stripes, orange, white and blue. Inside the central white stripe, three other flags are presented in miniature. At left is the Union Jack, representing the coastal parts of the country’s status as a British colony from 1806 to 1910. In the centre and at right are the flags of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, the Boer republics that ruled the centre of the country until they were conquered by the British in a vicious war between 1899 and 1902.

The "prinsenvlag"

The colour orange is a patriotic symbol both for South Africa’s Boers and their Dutch cousins. It derives from William of Orange-Nassau, the nobleman who led the Dutch war of independence against Spain and whose descendants went on to become military leaders of the Dutch republic (and, later, the modern Dutch royal family). William’s supporters took to flying a flag bearing his house colours, referred to in the Netherlands as oranje-blanje-bleu (a sort of Dutch-French pidgin nickname). It is more commonly known as the prinsenvlag, or prince’s flag. But it is not the current Dutch flag. The Netherlands has always flown a red, white and blue flag as well. That version became the exclusive one between 1795 and 1814, as the Dutch state underwent a series of transformations that included an anti-Orangist revolution and occupation by France. The prinsenvlag made a comeback after the Oranges returned as monarchs in 1814, but the red, white and blue flag still predominated.

Over the course of the 19th century, as the Netherlands democratised and the labour movement grew, oranje-blanje-bleu gradually became associated with the nationalist right. The Dutch right generally embraces the house of Orange, while the left tends to believe that the monarchy should be restricted or scrapped. In the early 20th century, the extreme right gave birth to the Netherlands’ own fascist movement, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB). In 1937 the Dutch queen made the red, white and blue flag official, but the NSB paradoxically embraced the use of the prinsenvlag. When the Nazis occupied the country and installed the NSB as their local puppet regime, the prinsenvlag became imbued with the overtones of Nazi racial ideology; like the Confederate flag, it also came to symbolise treason. For decades after the second world war, it was nearly as provocative to fly the prinsenvlag in the Netherlands as it would have been to display a swastika.

Over the past few years, though, the prinsenvlag has returned as a wedge issue in the Netherlands’ new political strife over race, religion and immigration. The anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) claim the flag is a symbol of Dutch pride and should be cleansed of its Nazi overtones. A national media hubbub erupted in 2011 when the flag was spotted in the windows of the party’s offices in parliament. The PVV uses displays of the prinsenvlag just as right-wingers in the American south use the Confederate flag: as a political provocation. It draws reliable accusations of racism from the left, which in turn heighten resentment and group solidarity on the right.

Mr Roof may not have been aware of it, but his patch displaying the former South African flag was a two-fer: a racist ex-flag based on an ex-flag that has come to be seen as racist. It is perhaps odd that the flag is tied to the Netherlands, a country with a longstanding, if somewhat tarnished, reputation for tolerance. But while the Dutch national football team still wears orange, oranje-blanje-bleu has gradually vanished from official use, not just in the Netherlands, but from the flags of every former colony of the Dutch empire—with a few exceptions. Three former Dutch territories still fly flags with an orange, white and blue colour scheme: the city of Albany, the city of New York, and the borough of the Bronx. Those cities use the old colours to invoke a different form of nostalgic local identity, one of Dutch liberalism. As for Mr Roof’s use of them, it merits a hearty cheer of the type for which the Bronx has become famous.

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