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23 October 2014 10:29 (South Africa)
Opinionista J Brooks Spector

The fable of Jacob and the Dog

  • J Brooks Spector
The president, in his ongoing quest to name and shame all behaviours that may be considered “un-African”, has seized on pet care as a cause. But what motivated him?

Some readers – and probably some of their friends as well – may well have gained a new household member during this just-concluded holiday season – a wet-nosed, floppy-eared, big-brown-eyed one. Like every other family member, it will have to be properly socialised into the family circle; it will need some occasional medical attention including routine vaccinations for communicable diseases; and it will grow and thrive best if it receives generous doses of love and careful attention to its upbringing.

That is, unless some of those readers also happened to have been listening attentively to the nation’s president recently. In some now-famous remarks, Jacob Zuma chastised South Africans – and especially his fellow black citizens – for the very un-African treatment of their pet canines by taking them on walks, taking them to the vet when they become ill, or by giving them the love and attention better suited to being provided to other two-legged – extended – family members.
Actually politicians and rulers seem to have a natural affinity with dogs – something about leading and being led, perhaps. The current British monarch is almost never seen without a gaggle of her favoured Corgis and there are museums-full of paintings of rulers together with their pets – sometimes as artefacts of their royal attributes or as clarifying lens into their souls. These pictures stretch back to the beginnings of recorded history – there are carvings and pictures of pharaohs and their birding dogs on Egyptian tombs.

In America, a man’s dog has become a key element of his political furniture. Franklin Roosevelt deflected the jibes of his political enemies, accusing them of stooping to attack “my little dog Fala”. Richard Nixon tried to tamp down accusations of corruption by chastising his attackers for picking on his children’s cocker spaniel, Checkers. Meanwhile Lyndon Johnson tried to impress reporters with his earthiness by picking up pet Beagles by their ears – their painful yelps were supposed to have been a signal of their love for roughhousing with him. Of course Harry Truman, no-nonsense, plainspoken as ever, simply told neophyte politicians that “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

And then of course there was the ill-fated Mitt Romney, now forever remembered for strapping family pet dog Seamus to the roof of the Romney station wagon for a 1,500-km summer vacation. Seventy million US dog lovers just had to wonder about that.

Back in 2008, incoming president Barack Obama searched hard for a dog that would cement political support even as it signified a new presidential era – finally settling on Bo the Portuguese water dog, a canine related to Senator Ted Kennedy’s own pet dog of the same breed. By contrast, American politicians rarely have had as much public affection for a cat, although the Clintons had Socks. Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt had a veritable menagerie when he was in the White House and the Kennedys had their daughter’s pony, Macaroni, stabled on the grounds as well.

Years ago, this writer lived in Japan. As world condemnation of the Japanese killing of whales and dolphins was reaching a crescendo, one international commercial negotiator explained the issue to me with a clever cultural referent. He said the west’s uproar over the slaughter of those aquatic mammals was – at its heart – basically about whether one thought of those threatened animals as the functional equivalent of pigs and cows – or dogs and cats. Not in taxonomic terms of course, but, rather, in emotional ones. If they were seen to be more feline- and canine-like than not, then they were seen as cute, they were given names like Flipper and Shamu, they were featured stars in a country’s theme parks, they eventually became protagonists in anthropomorphic children’s films, and they were taboo for the dinner table.

But if they were more like pigs and cows in terms of our affections, then it was only fair for these aquatic animals to go onto a the floating abattoir and then into the stew pot, with few afterthoughts or regrets. (Of course in Korea, China and North Sumatra, it actually is dogs that sometimes become fair game for the pot, so this becomes contested culinary as well as cultural territory.) And in South Africa, it is well-known many people take to their hearts the serious responsibility for the health and welfare of their cattle – and that those cows (like others’ dogs and cats) have individual, unique names, often based on the patterns and colours of their hides.

If Jacob Zuma were to have been asked about all this, he might well say the killing of those whales and dolphins was a time-honoured Japanese cultural practice and that no outsider had the right to interfere. He would be echoing the arguments of Japanese fishermen (and some politicians) who point to whale meat as a healthy, high-protein substance and to their fishing practices as crucial to the economies of numerous fishing villages and towns along the Pacific Ocean shore.

But the problem is that this time-honoured, traditional cultural practice really doesn’t go back all that far in history. The commercial slaughter of whales for the table only really got going in a big way in the early post-World War II years, as the Allied Occupation authorities encouraged consumption of whale meat as a partial, temporary solution to the country’s acute food supply crisis. And dolphins, in turn, have only been killed in rising numbers as an unanticipated side effect of large-scale, industrialised aquatic harvest techniques and methods.

In fact, go back just a little more than a century and a half and Japan, as a Buddhist society, basically consumed little if any meat at all – let alone whale meat. But cultures change – sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically. They are not immutable to time or outside influences and they never have been. Consider the dramatic culture-changing impact the flowed from the introduction of alien crops from the Western Hemisphere like tobacco and maize on dozens of traditional African societies after the European discovery of America at the beginning of the “Age of Exploration”.

At least until President Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, attempted to explain what his boss had meant to mean when he said what he meant, it seemed pretty clear the president was doing what he has done so often before: drawing upon his own sensibilities and personal preferences to define what is essentially and positively African – and, of course, what is opposite to it, alien, foreign, corrupting and degrading. It isn’t too long ago, after all, that this same president had publicly chastised women for contemplating a life without children, and who had said that as a younger man he would have punched the lights out of anybody who was avowedly gay.

Essentially, Jacob Zuma has been assigning the responsibility to define “Africanness” to himself, almost as if he were constructing a giant ledger sheet. On the left, under the heading “Indigenously African”, are all those things he grew up with and the ideas he has subsequently taken on board as constituting appropriate traditional norms and values. And on the right hand side of that ledger it is as if he has been listing all of those subversive ideas that might undermine an idyllic way of life in some Eden-like, unchanging rural village, slumbering in peaceful repose. In this approach, things are either in – or they are out.

For Jacob Zuma, it seems, undue attention to canine needs clearly belongs on the wrong side of that imaginary ledger – and therefore must be called out, shouted down, and then done away with as part of an effort to foster a return to and an embrace of that essential Africanness. But where does this worldview about what’s included and what’s not come from? It seems more than a little surprising to find points of similarity with the very ideology Zuma spent so much of his life fighting against.

Apartheid’s political ideologies had grounded their ideas on a supposed Biblical injunction to keep the different peoples of the world permanently separated, one from another, forever and ever, amen. To buttress their positions, they further drew upon the twisted evidence of historians, sociologists and anthropologists who had defined precisely eleven (not ten, not twelve or thirteen) African tribes in the country – separate, inviolate, immutable, and eternal – each with their own unique, locked-in traditions and corresponding homelands.

In some ways, Jacob Zuma seems to have settled on much the same ideological landscape. For him, the enemy is the combined effect of all those foreign, corrupting influences – interfering western religions and their noisy preachers, liberal ideas like feminism, foreign foods and even clothing like mini skirts and trousers (for women) – and now, most recently, vaccinations, walks and grooming for pets. Tradition and material culture are almost always used as tools to divide an “us” from a “them” (although maybe white takkies, brass police whistles, bohemian glass beads, Armani and Hugo Boss suits, and German luxury sedans have somehow been exempted from such criticism).

But what may have further encouraged Jacob Zuma to put pet care on the wrong side of his cultural ledger sheet, in a seeming antagonism to his own childhood experiences with the animals in his care as a young KwaZulu Natal herder? Perhaps the answer is in some place other than in his traditional experiences, values and norms.

The broad outlines of Jacob Zuma’s career are now widely known. There was the grinding rural poverty and scant formal education, then youthful rebellion hardening into more principled opposition to Apartheid. This, in turn, led to his arrest, conviction and a decade of Robben Island hard time. This was then followed by exile and his efforts to coordinate ANC intelligence operations in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia. Then upon his return to South Africa in early 1990, he played a laudable role in bringing the ANC-IFP violence in KZN to an end. Most recently there has been his rise, fall and rise again to his current heights in the government and the party. 

What may be less well known is what happened to him when he first returned from exile back in 1990. Recently it has come to this writer’s attention that when Jacob Zuma returned to South Africa from exile, sympathetic friends secured employment for him – wait for it – in a pet shop in Durban.

Imagine for a moment this circumstance. Fresh from his hard-scrabble existence in exile (preceded by all those harsh years of prison life and grinding rural poverty), suddenly he would have been saying “yes ma’am” to people bringing in those ridiculous Maltese poodles for their regular clip, shampoo and a bright new red ribbon just above those eager beady eyes – and all of this at the cost of more than a manual labour’s hard-earned monthly earnings.

Could anything have been better designed to draw a sharp demarcation line between what was right and decent – and what was appalling, wasteful and un-African? And as if to make that distinction even clearer, the rest of the story is that Jacob Zuma donated his first month’s wages to the impoverished families of other party members still in prison. But Zuma’s effort to decolonise the African mind, as per spokesman Mac Maharaj’s explanation, might well have happened without him simultaneously picking on man’s best friend if someone had taken him aside, back when he first started at that pet shop, and explained about the many thousands of years’ worth of strong bonds between Africans and their dogs.

In Jacob Zuma’s avowed goal to “decolonize the African mind”, discarding his false dichotomy of offering only the choice between embracing his version of Africanness or decrying anything else as a collection of alien, corrupting influences would be a good first step. DM

(Full disclosure: The writer does not own a dog at this precise moment, although there have been several in his life since the time when he was a small child. Those dogs routinely went for walks and had their trips to the vet whenever it was required – although they never were professionally groomed. Never. However, two cats currently claim family ownership – as well as a third one now attempting to worm its way into his household.)

  • J Brooks Spector
brooks spector 02 BW

Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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