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 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 on Twitter and other social media.
“Will I become ‘more African’ if I kick my dog, President Zuma,” one person commented tartly.
Another lamented: “He keeps on dividing this country.”
And another humorist wrote: “Well, that pretty much rules out that photo opportunity with Zuma, the Obamas, & their pet dog, Bo, in the White House.”
The backdrop to the dog debate is the legacy of Western colonialism in Africa, as well as the bitter 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 to an appreciative crowd 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 reportedly said.
In a statement, the South African presidency said Zuma was trying to “decolonise 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.
Zuma has often said he seeks to protect South Africa’s diversity and unify its disparate groups, but he has occasionally stirred controversy. In 2006, as deputy president, he said same-sex marriages, which are today protected under South African law, were “a disgrace to the nation and to God.”