/ 25 March 2011

A dog’s life in black and white

On any given morning (or afternoon) on the suburban streets of South Africa, you may see a black man or a black woman walking a pack of pure-bred dogs along the pavement.

At times, you may see a domestic worker being dragged behind a pack of hounds, trying desperately to keep up a conversation with a friend. Her demeanour is irritable because, generally speaking, blacks have a less ardent relationship with domestic animals than whites.

While running last weekend I witnessed two such ladies, dressed in pink and white uniforms, walking a dachshund and a sheepdog. As I approached them, the sheepdog became overly excited at the sight of a stranger. “He wena Charlotte, suphapha” (Hey Charlotte, don’t be so forward), one of them howled at the sheepdog, although that didn’t stop the dog from brushing up against me. I watched her tighten her grip on the leash and thought how different her reaction might have been if she were Charlotte’s white owner.

I wonder whether black gardeners and housekeepers enjoy walking dogs because, culturally speaking, dog-rearing isn’t high on the priority list of an ordinary middle-class black South African. We keep them, but our relationship is different. White people’s dogs usually have human names like Lucy or Paul because they are affectionately viewed as the four-legged members of the family.

They have kennels, medical aid, eat expensive food, are often taken on holiday, wear collars with their names and are allowed to sit on the couch or sleep on the beds of their owners. Blacks, on the other hand, give their dogs names that suggest their purpose. In the Nineties you were guaranteed to find a Danger, Tiger, Blackie or Killer in any South African township, because dogs were usually used for guarding against thieves and intruders. Rural dogs, which are also used for protection and herding, don’t even have affectionate names.

Nja (dog) is usually sufficient for one of the many rural pavement specials, while other imigodoyi‘s (mangy dogs) answer to Dlayedwa (he who eats alone), Qweqwe (the burnt crust at the bottom of a pot of pap) or just plain Mubi (ugly). These dogs usually sleep outside, eat human leftovers and are left to roam around as they please during the day if they are not tied to a pole. They are not hugged and kissed and are accustomed to hearing “voetsek” from strangers.

A friend who is obsessed with animals expressed horror when I explained to her that I don’t think it’s abusive, we just do things differently. The word “abuse” is relative to the owner’s cultural conditioning. It wasn’t so long ago when German Shepherds were used by the apartheid police to control black protesters and I still remember sneaking past white people’s houses because of the “Passop. Beware.

Lumkela” sign, that to my knowledge, was targeted at blacks. Finding common ground is going to take time.