JOHANNESBURG— South African President Jacob Zuma prompted howls of controversy when he said in a recent speech that black people should not keep dogs as pets because it is "un-African." His speech was well-received by the audience in his home province, but it has landed him in the doghouse in the national media and prompted the presidency to issue a statement defending his comments, which they say have a deeper meaning.
Zuma said earlier this week in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal that dog ownership was a hallmark of white culture and that people who love their dogs more than other people have a “lack of humanity.”
Zuma has said many controversial things in the past. Earlier this year, he said that women should not be single and that motherhood is “extra training” for women. He also famously described same-sex marriage as “a disgrace to the nation and to God."
But none of those pronouncements has brought out the claws like this one. Many South Africans, it seems, feel they have a dog in this fight.
Twitter filings were instantly littered with proclamations of puppy love and photos of prominent black South Africans with their dogs. There was even an old photo of anti-apartheid icon and former president Nelson Mandela hugging what appeared to be an enormous Rhodesian ridgeback.
More seriously, critics accused the president of race-baiting in a country that has for decades struggled with inequality and until the 1990s was under white minority rule.
But for South African dog owners, the issue is not black or white.
Winifred Sangcosi, a 57-year-old housekeeper in KwaZulu-Natal, sits on the committee of the Fundanenja Township Dog Training Initiative.
Here’s what she thinks of Mr. Zuma’s remarks.
“I must say, it’s wrong" she said. "Why, because, the dogs, is the part of the family.”
At that, Sangcosi launched into an ode to Salon, her mixed-breed dog who kept her company for 16 years. Salon tirelessly followed her throughout the house and when she ran errands. She barked at strangers and welcomed friends. She was, in Sangcosi’s words, “a very good dog.”
But presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj says Zuma’s comments are being incorrectly interpreted. It is not an attack on dogs, he says, but a defense of South African black culture, which has been ripped apart after decades of oppression.
“He was not saying that animals should not be loved or cared for, but what he was saying is that we should not elevate our love for our animals above our love for other human beings," said Maharaj. "And he gave an example in this context. He said, “we see people even today, driving in a van or a truck with a dog in the front seat. And sitting in the back in the rain and the most cold weather, will be an African worker.’”
Zuma’s comments don’t address what the nation is to do with its hordes of homeless animals.
The National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals handled nearly 750,000 animals in South Africa last year - most of them dogs and cats - said executive director Marcelle Meredith. She says those animals are adopted by South Africans of all races.
Meredith says the SPCA was “appalled” by Zuma’s statement, especially since the organization counts Mandela among its patrons.
“We also don’t believe that there is any foundation or research or fact that has gone into the statement that he has made," said Meredith. As far as animals, we have many many people of color, not just black people, there are many people of color in our country, who come to our SPCAs to adopt animals, they take on animals, they attend dog shows, they display their animals and are very proud of having animals.”
Zuma may have to take these jibes for a while, but it’s unlikely to challenge his status as head of the pack. Earlier this month, he was again elected as leader of the ruling African National Congress, a step that makes him a shoo-in for the presidency in 2014.