Growing up in a semi-rural South African township, my grandfather always insisted on keeping dogs as pets. There were always at least two dogs in the yard which had to be fed daily, occasionally washed and sometimes administered with some kind of medication. I, the unfortunate grandchild, was assigned to these chores.
We were the forward-thinkers in the neighbourhood. Even though we made the dogs sleep outside in makeshift kennels, fed them leftovers and never let them inside the house, our dogs maintained relatively healthy pallors and they were never malnourished. Most of the dogs in the area were vagrants, they’d roam the streets looking for food, water and maybe carnal encounters with the local bitches. They were emaciated and desperate. Those with homes were not very well cared for and often had to fend for themselves.
And then I started making white friends and visiting their homes. It was a rude awakening to see dogs sitting on living room sofas, dogs with toothbrushes and carefully considered dietary plans. Was this treatment of dogs just a ‘white culture’ phenomenon or was it just a preference?
A prominent political analyst and commentator, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, wrote a piece about how he cried when Bruno, his dog, had to be put down. He wrote about how he questioned his African-ness when he confronted his grief.
“On the last Thursday of February 2015, Bruno died. And I did something that is very unAfrican: I cried for my dog Bruno,” he writes. “What deed can be more unAfrican than an adult black male crying over a dead dog?”.
These were profound questions as they revived images of the contrast I experienced when I saw dogs at home and dogs in white people’s homes. Maluleke’s grief also reminded me of strange statements made by the ever-fumbling president Jacob Zuma who once confidently stated that spoiling dogs with care is unAfrican.
With all this in mind, I accosted my own mistrust of the canine species. I easily linked it to a traumatic and bloody experience between my 5 year-old self and two large Alsatians. But, considering the state of the dogs in my neighbourhood of upbringing, perhaps my feelings were part of something more collective?
For most black people, dogs are relics of a complicated history. In South Africa, some dogs were complicit in the apartheid agenda, used as tools by State police to strike terror into the hearts and flesh of many an activist. The breed of choice, the German Shepherd, was especially ferocious and aggressive to an extent that some believed that it had a special appetite for pigmented flesh.
A friend’s father once showed me his scars from dog bites which happened in the late eighties. He told me in graphic detail how the apartheid machinery allowed police officers to unleash their dogs on him while he walked home from work one Friday evening – just for sport. The emotional scars he carried certainly bred a mistrust of canines in his offspring and loved ones. My friend, his son, shared my wariness of the animals. Yes, some would argue that the dogs are trained to be that aggressive towards people but, as the image above shows, the animal becomes associated with owner and his ideology.
This black experience of dogs is not unique to South Africa alone. In the Belgian colony of Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), police used German Shepherds to subdue the people. In 1974 World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman discovered this association the hard way when he appeared in public days before the Rumble in the Jungle with his pet dog. Even though his opponent-to-be, Muhammad Ali, was already a public favourite, the dog further vilified Foreman in the eyes of the masses.
In the United States of America, police used dogs extensively to quell often peaceful protests. In 1963, African Americans of Birmingham, Alabama marched from 16th Street Baptist Church to the City Hall in an attempt to talk to the mayor about segregation. What followed is over 1,000 arrests that filled the jails to capacity and led the police to unleash high-pressured water hoses and police dogs on protesting children and bystanders.
It is the images of the dogs which are most disturbing to see. The savage nature of the attacks exhibit the inhumane disdain of one race over another.
After so many years of being on the receiving end of the brutality of the animals, it becomes interesting to see the varying relationships between black people and their dogs. My deep appreciation and reverence for all living things does extend to dogs but would I let a dog lick my face? I think a human being would stand a better chance. There is a conflict somewhere in my relations with dogs and animals in general. This tension is also evident in Professor Maluleke’s essay between his sense of being an African and his natural affection for Bruno.
It is certainly presumptuous to contend that Africans have a general apathy towards dogs. There is a history of dogs being domesticated animals which were seen as pets and beloved companions. Dogs as pets have been depicted in ancient hieroglyphics dating as far back as 3500-3000BC.
At the same time, it could be argued that a human being who has been the victim of numerous abuses by fellow human beings could resort to the company of pets as a way to deal with his or her trauma. Would that not justify a love for animals which exceeds that of fellow humans?
Whatever the case may be, there is ample evidence which suggests that black people in South Africa don’t all hate dogs. They may show their affection for the animals in a different way to how white people may display it, for example. Still, in a society as racialised as South Africa, conversations about canines do crop up when dogs become a part of the race debate. Recently, there’s been much heated debate about employers making their domestic workers walk their dogs.
Many black people have labelled this a humiliating practice for black people. Jacob Zuma’s comments can be understood in the context of the common sight of a black man sitting at the back of a pick-up truck, exposed to the elements while his employer, the driver, and his dog sit in the cosy front.
Caring for pets, more specifically dogs, cannot be proven to be unAfrican. Spending large amounts of money on dog food, grooming items and veterinary services shouldn’t be a ‘white’ practice. Crying for a dead dog should not make one question their African-ness. The affection that South African white people may show towards their animals might be indicative of their historically privileged positions in society whereas black people may not have had resources for such luxuries for animals; luxuries they barely afforded for their own children.