Updated Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 07:16 PM
JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s president says a dog should not be man’s best friend.
President Jacob Zuma made critical remarks about pet care that touch on sensitive race relations in South Africa, which was dominated by whites until apartheid was dismantled almost two decades ago, The Star newspaper reported Thursday.
The newspaper cited Zuma as saying in a speech Wednesday that the idea of having a pet is part of “white culture” and that people should focus on family welfare.
The president’s office sought to clarify
his remarks, saying he was encouraging “the previously oppressed African majority” to uphold its own culture. It also suggested the way in which the comments were reported, rather than the comments themselves, was divisive.
The president’s remarks triggered a flurry of retorts from animal lovers. “Will I become ‘more African’ if I kick my dog, President Zuma,” one person commented tartly on Twitter. Another lamented: “He keeps on dividing this country.”
One South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, ran a column under the headline, “Zuma goes barking mad.”
Some black South Africans, including a trade-union council leader and Zuma critic, Zwelinzima Vavi, posted photographs of themselves with their dogs.
Award-winning South African novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda posted an old photo on Twitter of former President Nelson Mandela grinning happily as a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog jumped on him. “There are many different ways of being African. Of being black even. Those who love animals are not less African / black than those who don’t,” Mda said.
The backdrop to the debate is the legacy of Western colonialism in Africa and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa that culminated in the first democratic elections in 1994. Poverty and economic imbalances remain a source of deep strain in the nation of 50 million.
During his speech in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province, the president said people who love dogs more than people have a “lack of humanity” and that some people are trying in vain to “emulate whiteness,” The Star reported. “Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair, you will never be white,” he said.
In a statement, the South African presidency said Zuma was trying to “decolonize the African mind post-liberation” and enable people to take pride in their heritage and not feel pressure to adopt customs of minority cultures. Animals can be cared for, was the message, but not at the expense of people. It said he gave examples of people loving animals more than other human beings: letting a dog sit in the cab of a truck while a worker has to sit in the back in the rain or rushing an animal to the veterinarian while ignoring sick relatives or workers.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.
People walk their dogs outside the home of former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Thursday. Jacob Zuma, the current president, said in a speech Wednesday that the idea of having a pet is part of “white culture” and that people should focus on family welfare and upholding their own culture.
South African President Jacob Zuma touches nerve.