You may have noticed the kafuffle during the holiday season, when a newspaper quoted President Zuma announcing in a speech that having a pet, and he especially mentioned dogs, is part of "white culture", and we should rather focus on family welfare.
As though these were necessarily alternatives, like walking and chewing gum at the same time. His office spin-meisters later tried to "clarify" his remarks (remember when people spoke so clearly they didn't need to be "clarified"?). As usual they condemned the media for reporting this badly and deliberately causing problems. He was merely encouraging "the previously oppressed African majority" to uphold its own culture.
I worry when politicians choose to be inaccurate and selective about the many cultures of Africa (there has never been a single culture within any continent) and it's usually, like a magician's patter, intended for misdirection - to make sure you're looking in the wrong direction while they're putting the rabbit in the hat.
Barking up the wrong tree
This was a most peculiar target for concern. Of course, promotion of human kindliness towards humans is highly desirable. But when we have, over the festive season, read about the rape of young children, even by family elders and parents, and cruel murders of lovers and family, is fondness for dogs really a relevant issue? So far as I can discover none of the perpetrators in these awful crimes owned dogs or other pets. Are such horrible behaviours, becoming appallingly typical of modern urban and rural culture, not much more urgently in need of "decolonisation" and eradication than taking a family pooch to the vet?
He told an appreciative crowd that people who love dogs more than people have a "lack of humanity" and that some people are trying in vain to "emulate whiteness". And who exactly are the child rapists trying to emulate?
I'd agree that loving pets more than people might be unwise, but there's much we can learn from them. Dogs don't rape children, or beat up women. Remember that one of the most reliable indicators of a psychopath who treats humans viciously, is a long history of cruelty towards animals.
The Presidency said he was trying to "decolonise the African mind post-liberation" and enable people to take pride in their heritage and not feel pressure to adopt customs of minority cultures. Didn't he realize that animals, including dogs, are a natural part of African heritage and majority culture?
What of building immensely luxurious houses for a tiny minority of already profoundly privileged people, as at Nkandla, when that money could have been spent on rural clinics and schools? And surely done "at the expense of people"? At least those he criticised pay for their own dogs, rather than using public money. Is such ostentatious waste a product of "colonisation"? Has this Presidency earned the moral stature to criticise people who choose to spend some of their own cash on cat litter or dog food?
Ignoring the fat cats
He seems not to have mentioned cats, but of course caring tenderly (literally, tender-ly) for the Fat Cats has been a major focus of his government.
It's curious how selective such complaints about alien culture is. Cellphones and football, for instance, both adored throughout Africa, are "white" inventions and developments, but apparently arouse no need at all for decolonisation. Texting is "white", as is Twitter, as are the bling and tenders so beloved by the elite.
The spokespeople sounded uncomfortably like those who defended Mbeki for the lethal folly of his AIDS denialism, complaining of "prejudice" against him. Disagreement is highly wholesome, and not always caused by prejudice. "Only those harbouring prejudice and hostility would believe he took a break from his holidays to talk about dogs," said one, complaining that the media prevented "the country from understanding the truth behind his remarks". What exactly didn't we understand?
But anyhow, our President was very seriously misinformed about both biology and African culture and history, and maybe needs to revise his advisors.
Africa, cradle of dogs and cats
There's been much pride expressed about Africa and even South Africa specifically, being the "Cradle of Mankind" and the source of the origins of all human races and varieties. But more recent research strongly suggests that Africa has been the cradle of Dog-Kind and Cat-Kind, too.
Genetic and other studies point to a probably North African origin for dogs and their domestication, and also, as I'll mention later, of cats. African village dogs emerged as companions around human settlements, probably developing from wolf-species, and thus in Northern rather than Southern Africa, initially. Scientists using DNA analysis of village dogs in 7 regions in Egypt, Uganda and Namibia, found the African dogs showed greater genetic diversity (typical of species near their place of origin) compared with dogs in other parts of the world.
Ironically, some of the breeds assumed to be indigenous to Africa, such as Pharoah Hounds and Rhodesian Ridgebacks, turn out to have much less African ancestry than more ordinary mutts, whereas Afghan hounds and Salukis seem to arise from North Africa, and Basenjis are definitely a sub-Saharan breed. Areas colonised or settled by Europeans tend now to show dogs of a wider range of modern and less indigenous breeds.
Dogs have been part of most human societies for at least 12 000 years, providing protection, companionship and hunting skills, and have been present in Southern Africa as long as African history has been recorded. Vasco Da Gama noted that the San, back in 1497, had many dogs; and explorers through the 1700s and 1800s noted that different indigenous tribes throughout South Africa kept dogs, especially valuing their role in hunting. They were almost certainly introduced to this region by black tribes moving South or Khoikhoi pastoralists. Dog skeletons have been found among the remains of the earliest human settlements of the Iron Age and even Stone Age - how "white" is that? Early Nguni and Sotho sites don't usually show dog remains, but neither do San sites, though they show dogs in their rock paintings.
Maybe dogs were first found useful in controlling vermin, but the African style of hunting became far more effective by incorporating dogs. The Zulu even later adapted these styles into their notably successful methods of making war. In the War of Mlanjeni, his soldiers are said to have trained hounds to pull down British soldiers very effectively. Shaka and Moshesh had special dogs accompany them on royal hunts.
In Xhosa culture, some authorities claim dogs were valued as helping to ward off the Thikoloshe. Nonqawuse, whose prophecies were so disastrous to the Xhosa, is quoted as saying: "Slaughter your cattle but save the dogs, for plenty of game is coming". OK, her prophetic abilities were even worse than that of most politicians, but at least she recognised the enduring value of a good dog.
Dogs were even the target of well-meant but imperialistic canicides to deal with epidemics of rabies, and the poorer local people resented the killing of their dogs.
Cats also arose very early on, and the African Wild Cat (Felis sylvestris lybica ) appears to have developed into the ordinary world-wide domestic variety. From at least 3000 BC in Egypt, they were for a time considered to be a form of God (something no cat has ever forgotten). Known as "miw", they were mourned on their death, embalmed and mummified, and placed in special tombs. Female cats were linked to Sekhmet, the Goddess of War, and male cats to Ra, the Sun God. Highly valued, they were eventually exported to many other countries, and always strictly protected. Only around the 1400s did a paranoid pope decide that cats were associated with witches and Satanic rituals.
So next time a politician offers to "decolonise your mind", make sure he has his facts right.
(Professor MA Simpson, Health24, January 2012)