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The white man’s dog

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.


  • Feminist, filmmaker, writer, poet, activist and author, Gillian Schutte has a degree in African politics, an MA in Creative Writing and a Film Director's qualification from the Binger Institute, Netherlands. Winner of the Award of Excellence for her documentary entry to the Society for Visual Anthropology Festival in Washington, 2005, and author of the novel After Just Now -- Schutte fearlessly and creatively tackles issues of race, identity, sexuality and social justice in her multimedia work. She is founding member of Media for Justice co-owner of handHeld Films. and co producer of the online Reality TV series The Schutte Singiswas'.


  1. Jean Wright Jean Wright 20 October 2012

    @Biogroid – 8.52. 20.10.12 Hooray to that! I have always given anyone who works for me the option of food or money in lieu. They have always taken the money. I remember in the UK when I was first working, everyone got Luncheon Vouchers – the glorious sum of 3s.6d. in those days. I think they were untaxed, but can’t actually remember. One could save them up and maybe take yourself & friend out to supper, as a lot of places accepted them. What the thinking was I’m not sure – perhaps something like those on lower salaries weren’t eating properly. Perhaps it was thought they’d eat better given encouragement. Don’t know. Think it all stopped years ago, anyway.

    Coming to South Africa, I found it a real schlep being expected to provide a meal once or twice a day. If I make a cake, or its hot and I have ice-cream, people working for me usually get some and they get it on normal china, with usual utensils. Ditto, tea, coffee or cold drinks.

    My dogs get treated with the love they deserve, are fed fairly suitably with the odd treat or bone, and all who come here/work here are treated the same and with respect regardless of who they are.

    You are right, whites are not the only employers of domestics, and oh! the continual racism one hears on these pages. Actually, in my neck of the (small) woods I haven’t encountered it. We generally rub along happily enough and are friendly and chat when we meet, regardless of the wretched colour thing. May S.A. move…

  2. Dave Harris Dave Harris 20 October 2012

    Cows are not regarded as human in India but given an elevated status according to ancient tradition, compared to other animals because of its pivotal role in preventing starvation.
    That Wikipedia article clearly states that – Cats were praised for controlling vermin and its ability to kill snakes such as cobras,

    Remember, these animals were not trained to debase and oppress other humans, or for personal sexual gratification as is the case in racist societies.

    You should be the last to speak of subservience. Besides Gandhi’s teachings were extending the principles of “ahimsa” (loosely translated as non-injury) to other species. He certainly did not ask humans to elevate animals to the level of humans at the expense of other humans!

  3. Alois Alois 20 October 2012

    If I were not sure of the country in which this article is written, I’d almost swear that it was coming from somewhere in the United States! That’s the tone. Gillian, wouldn’t your prose have been better directed toward alerting many of your fellow citizens that they are IN AFRICA, not EUROPE, and sooner or later they’ll have to deal with that hard fact? Look, you’re talking “integration” talk. I cannot imagine any European country that would pay this much attention to what a nonEuropean thinks and does about anything. In fact, the latest coming from Europe, where there are large nonEuropean populations, is that “multiculturalism” is rapidly losing currency, if in fact it ever had any.

  4. Reducto Reducto 21 October 2012

    Harris, instead of making unsubstantiated claims about the rate of bestiality, maybe ask yourself why people love dogs as if they were members of the family? Can you tell me of one other species that will give you unconditional love, regardless of who you are, how much you earn, where you live (or don’t live)? You need only go to Google Images and search “homeless man dog” to see what I mean.

    How one treats one’s animals is a separate issue to the mistreatment of domestic workers. Such people are scum, and should be dealt with severely under labour laws.

    However, I think you’ll find many folks who believe in social justice for humans who still love their animals as family. There is no incompatibility between love for one’s animals and belief in social justice (except maybe in your mind).

  5. enlighten enlighten 21 October 2012

    What makes humans think they are in any way superior to other animals or even plants or insects for that matter?

    Is it because humans have a long history of destruction. Does the ability to destroy and corrupt make us superior.

    I think this is a major delusion on our part.

  6. Andrew Andrew 22 October 2012

    @ Dave Harris: ‘ Even today, is common to see dogs to go crazy at the sight of a black person in white neighborhoods across SA.’ Interestingly enough, during a hike on the wild coast a few years ago, the dogs in a rural villiage we were passing through seemed to go crazy at the sight of a group of white people :P

  7. Lennon Lennon 22 October 2012

    @ Dave Harris: They were also mummified – an ‘honour’ not afforded other animals.

    Cats don’t need training to debase other creatures, including humans. It comes naturally to them.

    FYI: I’ve been walking the same route through my neighbourhood for the last 7+ years and the same dogs go off at me every morning and afternoon. Two dogs were loose on separate occasions and didn’t hesitate to try and take a chunk out of me.

    Seems equal opportunity to me.

  8. Zeph Zeph 22 October 2012

    Dogs are racist? Oh hell, this is taking the grandeur of victimhood too far. Get a life!

  9. Robert Robert 22 October 2012

    I do understand that there is an unreasonable fear of dogs shown by many black people. I have noticed it many times when taking my dogs for walks. I have two of the sweetest, friendliest mutts imaginable, but most black people freak out when my dogs try come up and say hello. I guess I should keep them on a leash, but really who’s problem is this? My dogs are not going to hurt anyone and they enjoy their freedom during walks (in natural areas). Keeping them on a leash may stop people from freaking out, but these same people need to also get over their fear of dogs.

  10. Jon Story Jon Story 23 October 2012

    @MLH (oct 20 1.45pm)

    Your last sentence says it all!

    (Thank you for a nice little story, although the DA aspect will not be appreciated by all).

  11. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 24 October 2012

    Dave Harris

    You have some strange issues.
    Animals were part of the deity system of Egypt. The hippo was invoked to protect children, a dog stood guard at the gates of the underworld and a cat was the household god of good fortune.

  12. Jody on her soapbox Jody on her soapbox 4 November 2012

    The dog topic you raise, could as much be said about how many muslims hate dogs because they are said to be unclean (jews and pigs) and how how hindu’s reveer the cow and we eat it.

    Besides culture, it appears that religion and the general wealth and Goodness of a society seem to be a play with how they view and treat animals.

    You see that in the leading dog ownership country’s of the US and UK, there is an interesting difference. There are more dogs owned per person in the US, but there are far more internet searches about dogs in the UK (double) than in the US. Not only that, but the leading UK search terms are about helping dogs, lost dogs and re-homing dogs, while in the US a lot of the searches are about dog pictures and cute puppies.

    I would go further to say that in the developed nations, while serious physical dog abuse is relavely rare in these developed nations, that dog abuse by leaving a dog home all the time, tied up, and not allowed to daily socialise with its own kind is on the rise because of the distractions like the internet etc. Yes. compared to racism and the things you have raised, this seems trivial, however you may find that that is why dog bites and dog aggression is on the rise everywhere … Just saying,

  13. Gavin Foster Gavin Foster 8 November 2012

    Dogs are generally better creatures than people are. If I had a lekker big rump steak going spare there are a whole lot of people I know – of all races – who wouldn’t have a snowballs chance in Hell of getting it before my dogs had eaten there fill – if at all.

  14. Fad Fad 9 November 2012

    I am actually tired of the stereotypical statements. “All black people are scared of dogs” “Black people abuse animals” “Black people only have cats for witch craft and muti”

    Black people do not hate animals and most times they dont own them because they cannot afford the upkeep! FYI, You would be afraid of dogs too if a dog brought back memories of that creature being used in a cruel brutal manner to subdue protestors!

    There are white people who hate cats and dogs and abuse them just as much if not more than black people!

    I am black and I happen to love animals, I grew up in a home full of all manner of pets including cats, dogs, tortoises, guinea pigs, and a Budgie (No I didnt grow up in a zoo or the jungle , I grew up in the suburbs!). I am currently the proud owner of a gorgeous 5 year old very pampered cat!

  15. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 9 November 2012

    I am sorry, this whole story is hogwash.

    Some people elevate their pet’s importance over other people – absolutely nothing to do with race.

    Some white people treated black people as less than human (I say this in past tense because I hope they are all dead, dying, or wish they were). I guess this was the reason for the documentary, but it barely makes any sense in the New(ish) South Africa, where laws (and sometimes) policing is in place to stop this abuse from happening.

    What, dear Author, motivates you to raise this topic? Do you believe the stereotype you are so keen to squash? Perhaps you are so wrapped up in the racial tension to see that this is a socio economic problem rather than a racial one.

    Oh, and on the statement, “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”, I am not sure that the dogs actually gave one single thought about who’s land they were walking on, or where the profit from their dog food was actually going. They were not restricted in movement, so I guess they just carried on as normal through the whole apartheid era, oblivious.

  16. khotso khotso 27 December 2012

    As usual, media doing the most to misunderstand JZ see: clever blacks incident.

  17. david forbes david forbes 27 December 2012

    just goes to show that it is actually a class issue, not a race issue nor a cultural issue. By the way, can anyone tell me what “white culture” is?

  18. ian shaw ian shaw 28 December 2012

    In America countless rich people treat their dogs better than their employees who are white. Lapdogs get special graves in pet cemeteries, sometimes are dressed in fantastic regalia, are hand-fed at family tables. There is absolutely no racial element here. Yes, some people treat their pets better than even their won relatives.
    It seems that everyone hwo wishes to inject a racial element has conveniently ignored these facts.

  19. exafrican exafrican 29 December 2012

    This all just make me so sad. But also happy that I’ve moved away from a country where no one wants to get along and move on with their lives. Maybe everyone could try to treat all God’s creatures (human as well as non-human) with love and respect? Or just keep blaming…

  20. Mona Mona 7 January 2013

    We are glad you left ExAfrican. Please stay where you are and we will stay where we are with our dogs and our white and black tendencies.

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