Best Friends and Worst Enemies: Years of the Dog in South Africa

By Imraan CoovadiaAugust 29, 2014

Best Friends and Worst Enemies: Years of the Dog in South Africa

Photo: Nelson Mandela by Alf Kumalo

ON BOXING DAY 2012, at rural Impendle in his Zulu-language heartland, Jacob Zuma distributed Christmas gifts of groceries and wheelchairs, blankets and lawnmowers, and warned his supporters against adopting outside customs. “Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair,” Zuma explained, “you will never be white.” The domestic dog, he said, was also a locus of delusion. After serving a 10-year treason sentence, Zuma had worked as a laborer in a pet shop in Durban in 1974 before rejoining the underground. Now the president diagnosed those who loved dogs more than people as suffering from “a lack of humanity.” Blacks who lavishly spent money on their dogs, took them to the vet, and walked them rejected African tradition.

The internet demurred, producing photographs of black men with their beloved dogs, in particular the Alf Kumalo shot of Nelson Mandela, taken before the Treason Trial, with his Rhodesian Ridgeback. The president’s office argued that Zuma had been trying to “decolonise the African mind.” The Young Communist League tweeted supportively that a “rich man’s dog gets more in the way of vaccination, medicine and medical care than do the workers upon whom the rich man’s wealth is built.” The president’s many critics ranged from the general secretary of the government-aligned trade unions to the blogger for The Underdog Project — “Underdog addresses social and emotional needs of youths and children using non-invasive animal-assisted activities, like dog training” — and the regional digital communications manager for Coca-Cola — “My heart has thawed in the warmth of their tails wagging and melted at the sight of their excitement when they see me arrive at home.”

South Africa’s president has the knack of raising an issue, off the cuff, in a way that maximizes resistance. It doesn’t sound like a democratic virtue, but it doesn’t diminish the political potency of men like Zuma and Hugo Chávez, Putin and Erdogan. Zuma’s reelection victory on May 7 was assured by the African National Congress’s traditional strength, party machine, vast investment holdings, and structure of branches crisscrossing the country.

Nor did the miasma of corruption settled around the party work to its detriment. Any real adversary can be bought off or subjected to the penalty of exclusion from the lucrative deal-making available to friends of the establishment. The main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, speaks a language of free market liberalism and race neutrality while channeling the resentments of the privileged, the nine percent of the population that is white its base. Unless the opposition finds a new voice, and despite a vast current of violent protest against government and industry, the ANC will rule, as Jacob Zuma has promised, until the second coming of Jesus.

In the meantime the postcolonial farm dog and suburban dog have replaced the colonial squad car as the cheap defense of private property. This animal tirelessly patrols the limits of property. Indeed he is the penumbra of property, so tender to his owner and alien to the person of the stranger. Fixed in position, he is unlike the mobile precolonial dog, visible in Khoi and San rock paintings from a thousand years ago, as well as the traditional Zulu hunting dog Africanis, and the township or pariah dog drifting from poor man’s yard to poor man’s yard to be fed or beaten by hand.

Badsha dog

Omar Badsha, Man with Hunting Dog

The guard dog also differs from the companionate dog, like Mandela’s Ridgeback, which signals the process of what social scientists call embourgeoisement, spoken, as Zuma meant to remind us, in colonial signs and symbols.

These last two types, guard dog and companion, are the great beneficiaries of the modern order. The essays in Sandra Swart and Lance van Sittert’s 2008 collection Canis Africanis: A Dog History of Southern Africa reveal a double structure. European-style man-dog humanitarianism nicely tracks with the expansion of the Anglosphere on the continent. In 1856 cruelty against animals was criminalized in the Cape, in 1874 in Natal, 1876 in the Boer Orange Free State, and 1888 in what was then the South African Republic centered on gold-rush Johannesburg.

By the first decade of the 20th century it was assumed that such cruelty was a vice of the non-European. The dog was imagined as the most zealous defender of the colonial project. Jock of the Bushveld, published in 1907 and still available, now in a “modernised edition […] cleansed of its prejudicial racial references,” presents a creole hero in Jock, with a foreign father and a domestic mother, one born in the colonies and one sent there, standing in for the political crossbreeding between English and Afrikaans that characterized the impending 1910 Union. In John Buchan’s novel of adventure and racial fantasy, Prester John, published in the year of union, the protagonist buys a dog called Colin, “an enormous Boer hunting-dog, a mongrel in whose blood ran mastiff and bulldog and foxhound.” The animal soon saves the life of its master when:

A mob of maddened savages surged around me. […] From their bloodshot eyes stared the lust of blood […] the wave of black savagery seemed to close over my head. […] In a red fury of wrath the dog leaped at my enemies. Though every man of them was fully armed, they fell back […] mortally afraid of a white man’s dog.

While personal and family dogs (“white man’s dogs”) were protected by dog humanitarianism, at the same time, as Swart and van Sittert observe, a vast canicide driven by sanitary concerns commenced against the stray, the pariah, and the township dog — poisoned by the tens of thousands by strychnine in the 19th century, subject to mass electrocution and the administration of coal gas in the 20th century. Supposedly to control rabies, the mass canicide was an overreaction to a threat more imagined than real.

Canicide, or dog genocide, forms the background to J. M. Coetzee’s later novels Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Disgrace (1999). In the former’s well-known provocation, Coetzee’s principal intellectual avatar, Costello, frets about animal-killing, “the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet, as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched.” She is talking about slaughterhouses producing meat, primarily, but dogs and cats as well.

In Disgrace, Coetzee carried out an audacious thought experiment. Instead of doing away with the animal holocaust, he imagined performing the killing in the spirit of love:

One by one [the protagonist] brings in the cats, then the dogs: the old, the blind, the halt, the crippled, the maimed, but also the young, the sound — all those whose term has come. One by one Bev touches them, speaks to them, comforts them, and puts them away, then stands back and watches while he seals up the remains in a black plastic shroud. He and Bev do not speak. He has learned by now, from her, to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.

In her famous reaction to Disgrace Nadine Gordimer criticized Coetzee for sympathizing only with the dogs. Coetzee’s sympathies, in fact, avoid the living and breathing dog, pissing and bumping noses and following scents. Distaste for the dog carries over to Lurie’s own daughter Lucy and her pregnancy: “What kind of child can seed like that give life to, seed driven into the woman not in love but in hatred, mixed chaotically, meant to soil her, to mark her, like a dog’s urine?” Love is reserved for the dying animal. It is not “curious,” as Lurie believes, but logical that “a man as selfish as he should be offering himself to the service of dead dogs.”

But for most people it is the living dog, the fierce side of the colonial and postcolonial dog, that is the issue. It is an everyday experience for a domestic servant, black passerby, or cyclist to be harassed by dogs. The South African dog is trained by power and property. Starting in 1911 the South African Police Dog Training Depot became the world’s leading center. As Swart and van Sittert’s Dog History recollects, bloodhounds were trained on the scents of African men. They were used to produce shock in any suspect in the course of extensive scent identification parades.

police dog

South African police dog with black suspect

In the 1960s, when civil conflict escalated, so did the use of dogs by military tracking units and riot squads. In 1972, giving monumental expression to this alliance, the national commissioner of police stood in attendance while the police chaplain led the prayers to open Helderus (“Heroes’ Rest”), a memorial honoring fallen police dogs and trackers.

dog memorial

South African Police Dog Memorial

Day-to-day repression relied on the threat of dog violence. By certain accounts the Soweto uprising of 1976 started when a police dog chased children into a school only to be beaten to death when they turned on it. As late as 1994, just before the first democratic elections, a magistrate levied a financial penalty on a couple who beat a laborer to death because his dog had mated with their bitch.

In 2005 President Thabo Mbeki removed his then-deputy Zuma, who faced a series of apparently devastating rape and corruption charges brought by government-aligned prosecutors. Zizi Kodwa, spokesperson of the ANC Youth League, which had once nurtured Nelson Mandela and had defected from Mbeki to Zuma, stood outside the courtroom and, in vivid but indirect language reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, called for “the dogs to be beaten until their owners and handlers emerge.” Njabulo Ndebele, the eminent South African critic and university administrator, found that “my name, according to reports, was one of four on a list of these ‘dogs,’” a supposed conspirator behind the scenes along with Mbeki. Ndebele turned this around, suggesting that “the dog, so long denigrated, so long a symbol of abuse, should become a national symbol for the humanity of South Africans […] Let us declare 2008 ‘The Year of the Dog.’” Ndebele has a manner both sincere and ironic, gentle and yet probing. He looked forward instead to “a revolution [Kodwa] never intended: one that will occur the day South Africans reconnect with their humanity through a new and caring relationship with their dogs.” 

2008 was not the Year of the Dog. Under President Zuma the country has become only coarser and more impatient, more intractably corrupt, and racially and economically divided to the point of dystopia. Police violence has revived dramatically. On 16 August 2012 a confrontation between police and radical miners at Marikana ended with 34 strikers killed, many apparently shot in the back. Every major chance for renewal, since Marikana, and indeed since Nelson Mandela’s retirement, has ended in an impasse. And since Marikana the economy has ground to a halt. We have become the intractable country. It is telling that the best and most plausible candidate to succeed Jacob Zuma is the billionaire businessman and former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa, who urged the police to take action against the unruly strikers.

Canis Africanis, above all, is a symptom of disorganization. South Africa has limited collective capacity. The opposite case, in terms of state power and lethal efficiency, is to be found in Rwanda, where Paul Kagame’s government, built in the ashes of the Tutsi genocide, conducts a forceful foreign policy. Patrick Karegeya, an intelligence official, fled from the Kagame regime in 2007. Installed in South Africa, a critic of the regime, he managed to survive a number of brazen assassination attempts. On January 1, 2014, as if to promise another year of the dog, he was found strangled in Michelangelo Towers in Johannesburg. A diplomatic crisis ensued between the Zuma and Kagame governments. Rwandan Defense Minister James Kabarebe was unmoved. On hearing of the murder he is said to have said, “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog.”


Imraan Coovadia is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the author of The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012).

LARB Contributor

Imraan Coovadia is a writer and director of the creative writing program at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author most recently of a novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012), winner of the M-Net Prize, and a collection of essays, Transformations (2012) which won the South African Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction. In 2010 his novel High Low In-between won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg prize. He has published a scholarly monograph with Palgrave, Authority and Authorship in V.S. Naipaul (2009), two earlier novels, and a number of journal articles. His fiction has been published in a number of countries, and he has written for many newspapers, journals, and magazines here and overseas, including The New York Times, N+1, Agni, The Times of India, and Threepenny Review.


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