Saturday, December 29, 2012

What the President might have said ...

This picture of Nelson Mandela with a/his dog surfaced some time before the remarks by President Jacob Zuma about the different cultures of animal ownership between black and white South Africans.

The holidays, this year, have been dominated by remarks made by President Zuma regarding the way in which white people, apparently habitually, treat their domestic pets better than they do the black people around them.  The President’s mistake, as far as I can see, was not the observation itself – which may or may not upon investigation, prove to be true.  The real problem with his remarks, in my estimation, was the way in which he gets himself entangled in notions of “culture” which are not only spurious, but extremely dangerous.

The ex-governor of the Reserve bank, Tito Mboweni, tells a story about when he was working as a young man, as a gardener in a white person’s home – before Limpopo was Limpopo.He says that round about lunch time – in the heat of the day he would hear “the Madam” calling “Titus!  Titus! Come and get your lunch!”  That was the signal for him to run like hell, because he had to get to the stoep to protect his lunch, before the dog got it.

His lunch would be three very thick slices of bread with jam on them, served on a chipped enamel plate.  There would also be an enamel mug of extremely sweet, milky tea.  “The Madam” had never thought to ask him whether he actually drank tea, and whether he liked sugar and milk, or not.

When he tells this story – and I have heard it often – there are often shrieks of laughter from black people of a certain age, who recognise the scenario, and squirming embarrassment from whites, who recognise their mothers or their grandmothers in the story as well.

It is just a fact that people will not fail to notice when domestic pets are treated way better than they are as people.  They will not fail to notice this because there is a perceived natural hierarchy in the universe, with the humans at the top.  The life of a human is seen to be much more valuable than the life, for instance, of a dog and therefore there is enormous resentment and indignation when the dog appears to be getting the better deal.

The corollary of this is that because humans are perceived to be on top, they can do what they like with other forms of life and treat them as they will or desire.  So, we can starve the animals in our care (whether they be horses on farms, or dogs or cats); we can let them die from neglect; we can beat them if we want to; we can stone them when they come across our paths.  Why?  Because we are the boss of the universe.

Clearly, the truth is that both of these extreme frames are wrong.  It has bugger-all to do with that hallowed thing called “culture”.  Stoning a dog, because it irritates you - or because you can - isn’t some great statement of African culture – it is just despicable inhumanity.  Neglecting the plight of a farmworker while pampering a kitten is exactly the same thing.  These things are not cultural, they are the best examples of how ugly and revolting human beings can be.

Whether it be the revolting regular practice of slaughtering bulls with spears for fun in Spain, or whether it be the equally revolting annual practise of killing bulls with bear hands in Kwazulu-Natal; whether it be the neglect of a dog under one’s care or the neglect of human beings in one’s employ – these things are not cultural – they are just wrong.   To baptise a practise as “cultural” does not make it right, it does not somehow allow the practitioner to escape from criticism or critique.  It cannot be a cosy hiding place for acts of cruelty and barbarism.

So, let us be clear – the perennial acts of neglect of human beings, compared with the penchant for pampering pets is going to be noticed and it is going to be paraded as yet another example of ongoing oppression. (Of course, to presume that this is something which is entirely racially based, is just remarkably silly).  But on the other hand, to presume that human beings have the right to dominate and subject (and if so desired, torture and neglect) all other forms of life, is crass and backward.  Do not expect that this is going to go un-noticed either. Neither perspective is cultural.  Both should be condemned.

The President’s recently expressed view is nothing unique to him.  I have heard it expressed as an almost defining characteristic of white people, by many black people.  (And I have also heard the opposite expressed as a characteristic of black people, by many whites.)  Where these are simple prejudices, they are at least something one can attempt to deal with, either by education or by argument.  But where they get entangled in the concept of “culture”, they become dangerous and extremely blunt weapons of analytical destruction.  Culture is, mostly, a fearful and terrifying thing.

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