Conservative backbencher Michael Fabricant is in the headlines today after being accused of sending an Islamophobic tweet about the Mayor of London.

The MP – famous for his distinctive blond hair and reality TV appearances – posted a cartoon showing a balloon with Sadiq Khan’s face on it having sex with a pig. (He deleted the post quickly and issued an apology.)

Mr Khan, a Muslim, gave permission for protesters to fly a giant blimp of Donald Trump over London during the US president’s visit.

Mr Fabricant appeared on Channel 4 News on Wednesday after jokingly suggesting that a US marine should shoot the blimp down.

He told our reporter: “It’s not the balloon I’m against. What I’m against is the hypocrisy of it all: people getting really uptight about Donald Trump, but don’t seem to care about President Xi of China, who has tens of thousands of people in political labour camps.”

Apartheid flag

As he was saying those words, he was standing in front of what appeared to be the flag of apartheid South Africa on the mantelpiece of his parliamentary office.

The flag is not fully visible in the shots filmed by Channel 4 News, but the resemblance is obvious.

The banner is a distinctive orange, white and blue tricolour design which incorporates the Union Jack and the emblems of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.

South Africa used the tricolour design between 1928 and 1994, and it was flown throughout the apartheid era, when South Africans were forced to live separately along racial lines and non-white citizens were openly discriminated against.

The flag became a symbol of the apartheid system and was regularly set on fire by protesters in a show of defiance.

Earlier this year, the Nelson Mandela Foundation called for the old flag to be banned from public display after became a feature of demonstrations by white farmers in the country.

The foundation said: “These displays demonstrably compound the pain experienced by millions of black South Africans who suffered under apartheid and continue to struggle under its legacy.”

FactCheck tweeted a question about the flag and the post has been retweeted more than 1,000 times.

Mr Fabricant in South Africa

Asked why he had an apartheid-era South Africa flag on his mantelpiece, Mr Fabricant replied on Twitter: “It’s alongside an old soviet-era USSR Hammer & Sickle flag – just out of shot. The cameraman can confirm. They are places I went on work visits in the 1980s. I am neither a Communist nor a supporter of apartheid.”

Mr Fabricant later told Business Insider that the flag dated from a stint when he worked for the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation.

South Africa’s state broadcaster was heavily criticised by activists throughout the apartheid era for being biased in favour of the racist system of government, and for failing to give due prominence to anti-government demonstrations.

Mr Fabricant was quoted as saying: “I did a radio contract years ago with the SABC. I also have a communist-era USSR hammer-and-sickle flag on the same mantelpiece because I also did work with Radio Moscow.

He added: “They are just flags from some of the countries where my company had clients back in the 1980s.”

The MP’s biography on the West Midlands Conservatives website says that before he entered politics, he was the co-founder of “an international broadcast manufacturing and management group… responsible for the long-term strategy of the group and for its export sales, travelling to – and working on – many overseas countries”.

He lists a number of clients including the Soviet state-owned broadcaster Radio Moscow, but does not mention work in South Africa on his site. He also says that he “acted as a consultant in the early days of the Russian Federation advising how to operate a broadcasting network in a democratic society”.

Any regrets?

FactCheck asked Mr Fabricant if he now regretted working for what was effectively an arm of the apartheid state in South Africa, and he replied: “There is so much we can all regret with hindsight…

“But actually, I did NO business in South Africa.  I did not like what was going on and only just escaped arrest for attending mix-race events.”

We pointed out that Mr Fabricant had apparently told Business Insider he “did a radio contract years ago with the SABC”.

He said: “There were NO business contracts in South Africa.  I have no idea what Business Insider have published.”

We also asked him about another South Africa connection.

Mr Fabricant’s website also states that he initiated a series of Conservative Political Conferences hosted at foreign embassies in London including those of the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and Turkey.

The wording suggests that he did this work before becoming an MP in 1992, which would mean that Mr Fabricant was working with the South African embassy while the country was still under apartheid.

We asked Mr Fabricant to confirm the timing of this work and he said: “I really can’t remember all the dates you are asking me.”