By Nadia Sanger
The allegation of being “un-African” continues to be used in multiple ways by political leaders to delimit African identities under the guise of decolonisation. In news reports on President Zuma’s latest allegation against dog ownership and their treatment by black people, are a number of bizarre, and relatively normative, ideas of humans and other animals, and their relationship to each other in the new South Africa; a space that is in need of decolonisation. The discourse that loving and taking care of other animals is “un-African”, a white phenomenon that black people are trying to emulate, has a long history in South Africa. While much of this history has legitimacy (white South Africans who treat/ed their black domestic help as lesser subjects than their companion animals), this discourse has unfortunately, much to the detriment of the decolonising project, not really moved beyond Zuma’s latest remarks. What does it mean to be treated “better than” or “less than”? And who gets to decide the marker from which “better” and “less” are decided?
As an upholder of the South African Constitution, President Zuma, in this instance, is in fact doing exactly what is required of him. Our Constitution, on paper, is a fantastic reflection of human rights. What is missing from these paper rights, is a sense of responsibility on all those who are able to access these rights. Some humans, as we know, have more access to human rights than others. This access is mediated by race, gender, sexuality, and ability, among others.
How do dogs and cats, the most popular domestic animals, feature in this discourse of human rights? They don’t. They have no rights really that matter to their lives. What matters in human rights’ talk, throughout the world but in different forms, is how human beings are affected. Human beings’ rights must be protected at all costs. In popular talk, this must be the case, and is central to the decolonisation project. In less-than-popular talk, other animals deserve to be treated as subjects in their own right. Both these considerations are not mutually exclusive. They can be contemplated in one thought. But there needs to be a shift of gear in the kinds of questions we ask, and the ways in which we respond to them, about humans and other animals, and race, class and identity more broadly in the current South African context.
To be fair to our president’s comments, dogs and cats should not be bought. Unfortunately, this practice is indeed racialised, but middle-class and wealthy white South Africans are not solely the culprits here. Pit bulls, and other “thorough-bred” domestic dogs are bought by people of colour (mainly men) for breeding and fighting purposes across lower-income and working-class communities. A decolonisation project must entail an understanding that there are millions of undesired cats and dogs held in cages at the SPCA, PDSA, and many other animal shelters across South Africa, dependent on funding needed to feed and sterilise animals, the latter so as to curtail the birth of more undesired cats and dogs in our world that just cannot, and will not, be taken care of by human beings. The stupidity of breeding “thorough-bred” dogs, specifically, works against the building of a democracy that, at its premise, is built on “a better life for all”.
The bigger question is around how we think about other animals, and how this is constituted in the decolonisation project. An understanding of power is central to this question — how power works, who gets to use it, and who gets used by it. Domesticated animals, at a broad level, definitely have it better than cows and sheep and pigs and chicken and fish — those eaten by humans. The enslavement and torture of animals bred for slaughter for humans needs to be understood as part of the question on decolonisation. Surely we understand slavery in this democracy? We understand what it means to be enslaved; what it means when we use binaries (us and them) to control and disempower. And we should understand the consequences of this type of thinking. The reality with other animals — domesticated and bred for slaughter — is no different.
What should not happen, in response to President Zuma’s statement, is that white South Africans respond in defence of their animal-loving behaviour. What privileged white South Africans do need to defend is their lack of contribution to decolonisation in current South Africa, and how their choices and practices maintain and reinforce neo-colonisation. This is done in multiple forms: buying “pets” from stores, horse-racing, and buying animal flesh in supermarkets (free-range being the new-ish fad, which helps quell guilt) and other practices which keep animal cruelty, and the use of other animals as instruments, in place. Privileged white South Africans, in a sense, need to work towards becoming “un-white”; to self-reflect and consider how they use inherited privilege to make choices that continue to benefit themselves by using whiteness as a passport. “Newly” middle-class black South Africans need to consider how the same thinking and action is not a human right being accessed and celebrated, but intensely undesirable behaviour, that leaves unquestioned privilege and power within the process of decolonisation. My feeling is that this is what President Zuma was getting at.
How do we understand love and care in the nation building, decolonisation project? Who gets to be loved, and how, who gets to be cared for, and whose life gets to be grieved? How different is this from apartheid discourse? The “animals get treated better than humans” accusation by those who call themselves “Africanist”, and those who call themselves “intellectuals” must be seriously thought through and deconstructed. Who gets to live, and cared for and grieved, cannot only be constituted within the realm of human beings. Because in this world are animal others who live, love, and grieve. In this world, are others who found themselves here, and live according to the rules of human beings. Again, this echoes colonial and apartheid logic and needs to be linked to how we understand discrimination, othering, and violence in the country and world we live in.
So when President Zuma, and other political leaders, make all sorts of comments that reify difference in ways that are not useful to a decolonisation project, they need to be held to account, and be shamed. Their short-sightedness and inability to understand and articulate decolonisation as a process that requires critical thinking, does not move us to freedom. It keeps us imprisoned, and in fact, moves toward further enslavement. Being cruel and harmful to others and ourselves, is not, to my mind, African at all. It is not the African I want to be.
Nadia Sanger works as a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council. She writes in her own capacity.