/ 18 June 2022

OPINION | How I found out my dog wasn’t racist

Graphic Dog Mobile 1000px
Now, back in the day, the police had a habit of setting dogs on people in the township

Before I start, I’d like to say howzit to those of you who’ve read my stories on Reddit before, and also, check where I am now, hey? 

Please understand that the publishing house in which I now stand is holy to me. You were never allowed to use what was then The Weekly Mail to clean windows when I was a laaitie, and I feel it’s disrespectful for me to keep saying p**s so much.

Skies julle, tshwarelo (check, I can say that now too), skies tannie. My kids are insisting I respect the no swearing rules they have to follow, and as a result, I can’t play Xbox until about 2050 at this point.

I’ll have to recap a few things for the new people.

Hello everyone. I am an avocado farmer in the wilds of Limpopo and I like to share stories. I would like to tell you about what it was like to grow up white in a black township in the 1980s. Ja. I also did that.

But the tale begins earlier, in an idyllic valley in KwaZulu-Natal with a forest and a little river winding through it, where the Kambula Mission Station was busy crumbling away. My father was a priest (thoroughly retired now) and ministered to the local community by way of cycling from kraal to kraal, delivering the eucharist.

My parents were conservative about some things, but generally weirdo lefties, and were matter-of-fact enough to allow a six-year-old to wander off unsupervised into the forest with a sharp axe. I used to cut down trees and build forts with my buddies. Plaasseuns.

Incidentally, those kids ripped me off in the following way: their mothers had instructed them only to speak English to me. As a result, while I provided a gratis tutoring service, I never learnt Zulu. Sneaky moms, o a stout, wena! At 46, I am finally learning Sepedi so that I can yell at my staff more effectively. 

The mission station had once been a grand affair, with an unkempt lawn that stretched forever until it reached the driveway, where a syringa tree stood. This is significant because rural Zulu culture is more polite than you can possibly wrap your head around. 

The procedure for visiting a kraal is as follows. Stand at the gate, and wait to be noticed; this may take some time. When someone finally sees you, they will fetch the most senior person present, who will come and greet you. You may then enter if invited, which you will be because of ubuntu.

Thus, when people came to visit Umfundisi, they would sit under the syringa tree and wait to be greeted, because to approach the house without being invited would be an act of serious disrespect. But as a result, they’d sometimes be there for hours before anyone noticed them.

We had an old Labrador-cross-Saint Bernard (attitude from the former, size and slobber from the latter), and whenever she woke up, she’d eventually bark lazily for a bit, which was how we knew we had guests. Then we’d go and see if they wanted to talk, or were hungry, or possibly drunk and bleeding. Normal church stuff, in other words.

But in 1987, my dad was transferred to the township of Atteridgeville, just the other side of Wespark, which I am sure has nothing to do with its proximity to Yskor and Pelindaba. Incidentally, pelindaba means “the end of the story” — possibly ominous for a nuclear reactor.

Now, you might assume that living in a township was going to be a massive culture shock, and in some ways it was, but it was also a shift in our standard of living. The mission station did not have electricity and we drank rainwater. 

In the township, you could drink from a tap, and at night you didn’t need candles. We suddenly had appliances; by the end I even had a secondhand 8086 microprocessor (hello nerds). So although our neighbours now lived on top of us, it was very much an upgrade.

Now, back in the day, the police had a habit of setting dogs on people in the township and I believe that this is the reason why so many black people are terrified of dogs to this day. My sorrow is partly to do with giving an entire race post-traumatic stress disorder, but also because so many will never know the unconditional love a dog will give you.

But the imminent move prompted us to wonder what we should do about the fact that our very large (but incredibly slow) dog had trained itself to bark at black people? It’s not a great first impression.

We debated giving her away. We even debated putting her down but we couldn’t bear the thought, so in the end we decided simply to take her along and see what happened.

For the purposes of this tale, we will now skip over the part where a vast crowd of parishoners, in their best Sunday outfits, had assembled to greet the new white priest. He emerged from a skedonk station wagon, bleary from driving all night, and stinking to high heaven because we didn’t own a pet cage and our cats, freaked out by being loose in a moving car, had sprayed diarrhoea all over us. I’m not sure what the people of Atteridgeville  were expecting, but we weren’t it.

And we skip over that because a miracle occurred.

When our decrepit dog got out of the back of the station wagon, where she’d obviously vomited copiously all over our luggage, she went and had a chat with the wiry little mutt next door, who explained the lay of the land to her. And immediately, with no training of any kind, she ceased to bark at black people and thereafter barked only at the police and the soldiers of the South African Defence Force.

To be fair, she had a legitimate beef with them, for threatening to shoot her when they came to arrest my dad. But that’s a story for next time.

Have a lekker week. Tell the ouens where to find me.

David Beukes farms avocados in Limpopo and likes to tell stories.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.