A wake-up call for our sleeping dogs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 4:00am

For all the stupidity of his remark about dogs and white people, there might be a grain of truth in South African President Jacob Zuma's latest gaffe. Deep in the back of his mind he may have been thinking of one of the peculiarities of suburban South African life, particularly as race barriers came down after the end of apartheid.

For generations, South Africans of all races have known that the dogs owned by members of the other races did not like them. Snarling curs in the township attack whites daring to venture there. In the white suburbs dogs prized for their ferocity will turn rabid if a black man so much as walks by the garden fence.

By the dogs you knew who lived there, which created awkward situations in a newly post-apartheid society, when white families politely hosting black guests found themselves embarrassed by the dog's hostility towards the visitors, and then having to come up with face-saving pleasantries to explain away an uncomfortable truth: our dogs knew a lot about us that we preferred to keep from each other.

Zuma probably had such scenarios in mind when he said that dog owning was a part of white, not black culture. Anyway, as a matter of fact this is not true. One of the most famous breeds from southern Africa is the Rhodesian ridgeback, which was bred for hunting lions. Its ridge is characteristic of indigenous African domestic breeds, particularly along the southeastern coast of South Africa, whence Zuma hails. He still regards Zululand as his ancestral home, so much so that, at colossal expense to the grievously abused taxpayer, Zuma has had built there a stately palace for himself and his many wives. This compound (in the non-colonial sense of the term) has been built in a style whose layout recalls the palaces of the 19th century Zulu kings - Shaka, Dingaan and Cetshwayo.

The kings' kraals included dwellings arranged in a manner that signified the occupants' status within the royal hierarchy - much like the spatial principles of the Forbidden City, with its officials and concubines, but instead made of grass. Certainly the Zulu kings had dogs running around the place, doing their best to keep intruders, perhaps even the tax man, away.