I was invited to be a Thought Leader blogger in the same half hour that I gave our vet the go-ahead to euthanase our big German Shepard, Chow mix – Sphinx. He was an epileptic and had experienced multiple chronic seizures the previous morning. While my heart contorted with pain and tears streamed down my face it became clear that my spouse Sipho, who was in just as much pain, was incapable of comforting me — so I turned to Facebook to share my sorrow with my Facebook friends.
Many friends offering words of support and commiserating my sense of loss followed up my status about the passing of Sphinx. Some shared experiences about the loss of their own furry family members. It helped to ease the pain.
The posts came from friends of diverse races and contained similar sentiments and condolences. Then I got one from a young black political commentator who I follow intermittently.
She wrote: “When pets die, does one say ‘condolences’? I mean, in the township pets die all the time and we just throw them out in the dumpster, so I have never really understood the ‘correct’ way to sympathise with someone who has lost a pet.”
Sipho, who hails from Gugulethu, verified that some township dwellers do indeed do this — while others bury their pets and mourn their death.
This all bought to mind a film that we produced a few years back called Inja Yomlungu (The white man’s dog). Written and directed by Sipho, in it he explores a multitude of issues around black and white attitudes towards their dogs. He asks hard questions such as what makes a white man treat a dog better than a human being of a different race? He explores the notion of white-owned dogs being used as weapons of racism in the days of apartheid, when police dogs were used to inspire a fear that still resides in the consciousness of many black people today.
Before he was imprisoned on Robben Island, Sipho had a dog named Duke. In the film he speaks of his devotion to his dog, but questions if they were indeed as close as some of his white friends are to their dogs. It is through this personal lens that he explores factors behind the different attitudes between white and black people in relationship with their dogs. He interviews a diversity of people — from white dog owners, to Credo Mutwa, (South African zanusi, traditional leader and shaman) on ownership and attitudes towards dogs, and attends dog psychology classes with middle-class white housewives and their overly pampered pooches. He also films doggy beauty pageants and prowess contests, sometimes with amusing results.
Uncomfortable issues are raised in the film such as the matter of dogs being perceived by some white folk as more important than a black person. A gardener that Sipho interviews speaks about how dogs get better food and are served in “proper” plates — unlike the domestic workers and gardeners who are often fed in plastic ice-cream tubs. Mutwa speaks of his early days as a “house-boy” when his “madam” would watch on as he was abused by her dog and then scold him for the interference. He also recalls how he was given low-grade meat to eat, less expensive than the dog’s food.
What becomes clear in this documentary is that there is the common understanding or belief that white people’s dog are treated better, pampered and spoiled far more than black people’s dogs.
But it is the white perception that black people intentionally ill-treat their dogs that is most robustly contested in the documentary.
Mutwa refutes this stereotype by explaining that in a pre-colonial Africa the dog was not ill-treated but cherished as a companion and warrior and when a dog died it was given the status as a respected ancestor. He also speaks of the fact that dogs are often the conduits for messages directly from the ancestors. The black man’s dog was, and in some cases still is, used for protection and hunting. It was an accepted code though, that one would not go as far as to treat a dog better than he would treat himself or his neighbour.
Both he and the Sipho contend that dogs are said to be ill-treated by a white racist or neoliberal discourse that fails to take into consideration that black-owned dogs have suffered the same economic fall-out as their owners via a long process of subjugation, land grabbing and theft of economy through colonisation and apartheid. Rather a racist white view couches the issue of neglected or starving dogs in rural villages, townships and informal settlements as yet another manifestation of the uncaring and inferior nature of the black people in general. This discourse also fails to recognise that middle-class black people have a very different relationship to their pets and that the propensity to spoil pets comes with certain economics, not necessarily race.
One thing is abundantly clear — dogs have unwittingly become the signifiers of anxieties, attitudes and stereotypes that black and white people hold about each other, though the dog itself is incapable of being a racist or acting out in an intentionally racist manner. Undoubtedly it is the owner who projects and transfers their personal racist perceptions, attitudes and will onto their dogs.
This topic begs much more analysis and exploration but for now I would like to say to Sphinx — go well my furry friend, hamba kahle.
Sphinx had, like most dogs, the capacity for unconditional love, and since he found himself in an inter-racial family, he displayed no racist tendencies either. He was, perhaps, a glimpse of a possible future.