Maverick Life

Crying Wolf: Lockdown’s dog-walking issue has deep roots, revealing South Africa divisions

By Ed Stoddard 14 May 2020

Denise Jans for Unsplash

Our three dogs had been evolving back into wolves over the course of the hard lockdown. Thankfully, we can now run or walk them between 6am and 9am. It is easy to dismiss such concerns as typical Johannesburg northern suburbs whining, which admittedly it is, on one level. But the dog-walking issue has exposed one of South Africa’s many cultural divides, and this one has deep roots. 

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” ― Jack London, The Call of the Wild.

In the splendid 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, about the world heavyweight title fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974, there is a wonderful scene where a Congolese interviewee relates his incredulity at a cultural faux pas committed by Foreman.

“He arrived with a dog, a German Shepherd, which immediately offended Africans since the Belgians had used them as police dogs.” The African affection for cattle seldom extends to dogs. The late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe once described gay people as worse than “pigs and dogs.” In 2012, former president Jacob Zuma, a traditional Zulu, allegedly said owning or walking dogs was “not African,” and black people who did so were trying to imitate whites, creating a brief furore in the local press. 

There are question marks over exactly what Zuma said. Gareth van Onselen has noted that:

“Zuma’s ‘dog comment’ caused a media uproar of spectacular proportions yet, curiously, search as you might, you will not find a direct quote from the President of the nature reported — that having a dog was ‘unAfrican’. The closest you can find to a direct quote on the dog issue, from the original Mercury story, is the line: ‘Zuma described people who loved dogs more than people as ‘having a lack of humanity’ — a perfectly defensible position.’ ”

The ensuing debate was instructive, even if Zuma’s real remarks were lost in the fog. The view that white people value dogs more than people — or in some cases more than black people — has currency among some Africans, a point which (mostly white) commentators missed in their sputtering outrage at Zuma’s supposed remarks. They also gave offence to black people who do own and enjoy the companionship of dogs, prompting some to post pictures of themselves on social media doing the “un-African” thing of walking them.

Dog walking, of course, became an issue again during the Level 5” lockdown, and may do so again — none of the regulations are set in stone. Ahead of the imposition of South Africa’s lockdown in late March, the widely respected Health Minister Zweli Mkhize let a cat out of the bag when he said people would be allowed to take a daily jog or walk their dogs — a guideline backed by WHO recommendations. That was quickly shot down by Police Minister Bheki Cele, who seemed to relish the prospect of arresting those who attempted to flaunt the regulations by walking their dogs.

On Day 1 of the lockdown, Julius Malema retweeted a post under the heading “Just spotted the first person breaking the rules in Sandton” which showed two pictures of a white man at a distance walking two small dogs on a street, allegedly taken that day. Malema’s retweet garnered 607 replies and was retweeted 2,500 times (many no doubt the work of EFF bots). Comments included “He had to be white” and “Just shoot the dogs. They will get the message”. (A sideshow to all of this was the running/jogging issue, the underlying premise of which was that running in South Africa was somehow a “white pastime” — an insult to the many black runners out there).

 Jock the racist of the bushveld

It must also be said that there are numerous cases of Africans using dogs which go far beyond middle-class sensibilities. Some African herdsmen use them to protect or herd their livestock, and they are also used in parts of rural Africa, including in Zuma’s rural Zulu heartland, for the hunt. There is a wide historical literature which attests to this including Jock of the Bushveld, which offers a revealing lens to the current barking around our canine issues.

Shot through with the ugly racism that has so long been the scourge of South Africa, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into racial and class relations in late 19th century South Africa, in part through the prism of perceptions of animals. J Percy FitzPatrick cleaves to stereotypes that remain today, of African people being fearful of dogs (for which there is a historical context — the Belgians and those German Shepherds) and dogs such as “Jock” regarding African people with suspicion.

Indeed, in FitzPatrick’s rendering, Jock even held the hunting dogs of Africans in contempt. In this slice of anthropomorphism, the relations between the dogs of blacks and whites mirror the unequal social relations of their human masters, and the negative image that white settlers have of Africans.

For many African people, dogs are understandably associated with colonialism and apartheid – almost an invasive species imported by white people for their own use and protection, and in some cases to terrorise Africans. The African disdain for, and fear of dogs – often discussed in hushed tones around middle-class white dinner tables in Johannesburg and Cape Town – is very real, and needs to be discussed openly and frankly. For many white people, such a reaction — fear in the presence of dogs — is perplexing or worse, confirming their racist stereotypes about “irrational” African behavior. At least some Africans might view it through another prism: canine behaviour as a projection of white racism and violence.

Jock, the racist of the Bushveld, has invaded the suburbs.

Ignoring or dismissing such encounters and reactions, and the social and historical contexts that have given rise to them, simply perpetuates one of the many cultural divides between Africans and non-Africans when it comes to animals – in this case, one that began when wolves, which are not native to Africa, first approached our fire pits tens of thousands of years ago. The process of domestication which started then, as Jared Diamond has noted, is one of the reasons why Europeans wound up with the “guns, germs, and steel” – which they brought to Africa and other regions, along with the dogs. 

Diamond’s domestication dilemma

Diamond, an ecologist known for his fieldwork with birds in Papua New Guinea, in 1997 published a ground-breaking book called Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years. In the work, Diamond set out to broadly explain why some societies are more powerful, affluent and technologically advanced than others. He asked why mercantilism did not flourish in sub-Saharan Africa or why Native American societies did not develop sophisticated technology to rival the European civilisations that conquered them.

The clues he found to this conundrum — as a robust rebuttal to the racist notions that had coloured western ideologies for centuries and flourish to this day on the fringe — were to be found in geography and the environment. Prominent among them was the geological distribution of wildlife, animal and plant, around the globe. 

Diamond found that only 14 large species of mammals were domesticated before the 20th century and of these, only five became vital to humanity and widespread around the globe: the cow, sheep, goat, pig and horse. Crucially, the wild ancestors of the “Ancient Fourteen” (as Diamond dubbed them) “were spread unevenly over the globe. South America had only one, giving rise to the llama and alpaca. North America, Australia and sub-Saharan Africa had none”. But Eurasia had 13 of the “Ancient Fourteen.” Seven occurred in Southwest Asia, the birthplace of the agricultural revolution. This unequal distribution of animals that could be put to use by humans was one of the reasons Diamond argued that Eurasians “were the ones to end up with guns, germs and steel”. 

The origins of domestication were varied and may have started as far back as 40,000 years ago with wolves. One intriguing theory holds that they were domesticated to become the hunting companion of humans, and this “double alpha predator act” helped wipe out European megafauna such as mammoths.

Some have argued that it was animals that chose domestication as an evolutionary strategy, not the other way around. The advantages to teaming up with the smartest biped in the neighbourhood, from a four-legged perspective, are many. Meals are regular and there is protection from predation, even if your lot in life is ultimately to be consumed by your keeper. The Call of the Wild is a stirring piece of literature, but in reality, wolves heeded the call of prehistoric human society, and became dogs, not the other way around. And ultimately, domestication, as a strategy for passing on your genes, is unsurpassed in the animal world. As one writer on the subject has noted: “Dogs, sheep, goats, cattle and horses far outnumber their wild counterparts.”

Diamond identified six traits needed for an animal to be domesticated: a diet that humans can provide substitutes for; fast rates of reproduction; well-established hierarchies of dominance, which allow humans to fill the alpha role; a relatively benign disposition, as opposed to an ornery one; breeding adaptability so they can reproduce in captivity; and a tendency not to go into a blind panic in enclosures or when confronted by predators. “Many species passed five of these six tests but were still not domesticated, because they failed a sixth test.”

In this regard, Africans were short-changed. The continent has been dealt a hand of animal cards that is unsuitable for domestication, as virtually no sizeable mammal on the continent passes all six tests and has been domesticated. The one exception appears to be the donkey.

And it is here where some of the deep roots to the lingering cultural divides over issues such as dog walking and pet ownership reside. African wildlife is wildly unsuitable for domestication. Much of it possesses what Diamond called an “ornery disposition” on a demonic scale — think of any of the Big Five when riled up, or hungry as well in the case of the cats, not to mention hippos and crocodiles. Indeed, Africans have remained burdened by beasts, thousands and tens thousands of years after dangerous megafauna elsewhere was mostly eliminated — in the view of many but not all scientists who have studied the issue — by Homo sapiens after our ancestors left the mother continent where our species evolved. I have raised the possibility elsewhere that human/wildlife conflict may have been one of the factors that contributed to these extinctions.

Africa’s dangerous faunal environment goes a long way toward explaining the divergent views that Africans and non-Africans hold about the wider animal kingdom. For example, it plausibly explains the African veneration for cattle as a source of status and wealth. A big, largely docile animal that is also useful — that is something that stands out in such a menacing faunal environment. It is something to be prized and protected. By contrast, non-Africans tend to romanticise and treasure the continent’s wild megafauna. For many Africans, life with lions, crocodiles and elephants has been a curse. I have written about this elsewhere regarding my concept of the “faunal poverty line”.

So, where does the dog fit into all of this? The dog’s wild ancestor is the wolf, and it is the snarling exception to Diamond’s general rule — it is hardly known for its benign disposition. In that sense, the dog fits into Africa’s wider historical faunal environment. Its utility in Africa has historically been for the purposes it was used for elsewhere. In the pre-colonial era, one recent academic paper on the subject suggests: “… dogs performed at least three valuable functions for southern African herders: as guard dogs; as defenders of livestock from predators; and as aids in hunting.” These roles, which include the protection of highly prized cattle, suggest a dog’s role stemmed from its fangs.

Were they valued for companionship? There is archeological evidence at Cape St Francis of humans and dogs being buried together which may suggest so. But dogs are notably absent from the region’s rock art. And some early European commentators suggested that Africans did not value their dogs highly. There are echoes of this today in the way many (white) middle-class South Africans regard the treatment of dogs in townships — a view that also serves to perpetuate negative racial stereotypes.

And in Europe, North America and other regions of what we now call the “developed world” or “advanced economies”, the rise of pet ownership in the 19th and 2oth centuries coincided with the rise of the middle class and changing attitudes towards animals more generally. This included advances in science, including Charles Darwin’s earth-shaking insights into evolution which demonstrated that humans were part and parcel of the wider animal world. Meanwhile, the twin forces of industrialisation and urbanisation gave rise to romantic notions about the natural world, while an emerging class with disposable income could acquire animals as amenities rather than for their utility.

This all serves as the background to the emotive topic of dog walking which has emerged from this pandemic and the lockdown measures to contain it.

Contestation and conflict on the issue is to be expected in a society that sadly remains so divided on so many fronts, notably in glaring disparities of wealth and income, which naturally lead to conflicting priorities. For many African people, the dog-walking debate throws into sharp relief “white privilege” and entitlement at its worst. For many members of the affluent classes, who are not exclusively white, it is among other things an animal welfare issue — dogs that are used to regular outings and exercise should not be deprived of such things which, the argument roughly goes, can be done safely if social distancing is adhered to out on the streets or in suburban parks.

But why should you be able to walk just because you own a dog? And how can we speak about “animal welfare” in a country with such pressing social needs? Indeed, such needs are assuming colossal proportions in the face of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, our trio of dogs under the lockdown were slowly heeding the call of the wild and reverting to their ancestral wolfish ways. This is an exaggeration, but they were by turns uncharacteristically surly, snarly and destructive — especially the puppy which is only a few months old. For them, their daily outings are not a privilege — they are a right enshrined in some canine constitution.

As I write these words on a lovely Joburg autumn day, there has been a dramatic change in the behaviour of our dogs, notably the young one. Daily morning runs in the hood have calmed them all down. The adolescent is not trying to chew everything in sight — though there are notable lapses — and is not constantly baying at the older pair to play. But the howls around the dog-walking issue could be unleashed again.

Like the cry of the wolf, they have an ancient pedigree, and one that continues to divide us. DM/ ML

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