COMMENTS made by President Jacob Zuma about dog-owning white culture was his attempt to "decolonise the African mind", his spokesman Mac Maharaj said Thursday.
The explanation from the presidency followed media reports and tweets criticising Mr Zuma’s comments as "essentialist" and backward looking.
Mr Zuma made the controversial remarks in an address to thousands of people attending the very traditional, annual commemoration of the induction of Inkosi Sibongiseni Zuma at Impendle in KwaZulu Natal. He described people who loved dogs more than people as "having a lack of humanity". Spending money on buying a dog, taking it to the vet and for walks belonged to white culture and was not the African way, which was to focus on the family, he said.
Black people should stop adopting the habits of other cultures. There was a new generation of young Africans who were trying to adopt other lifestyles and even tried to look like others. "Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white."
Mr Maharaj said in a statement that Mr Zuma had wanted "to enable the previously oppressed African majority to appreciate and love who they are and uphold their own culture". The president was promoting ubuntu and maintaining respect and high regard for other human beings and African culture.
Mr Maharaj said Mr Zuma was referring to "what people should guard against, such as loving animals more than other human beings. He made the well-known example of people who sit with their dogs in front in a van [bakkie] or truck, with a worker at the back in pouring rain or extremely cold weather.
"Others do not hesitate to rush their dogs to veterinary surgeons for medical care when they are sick, while they ignore workers or relatives who are also sick in the same households."
Mr Maharaj said Mr Zuma was not suggesting that animals "should not be loved or cared for" but that people should not "elevate our love for our animals above our love for other human beings".
Mr Zuma, he added, had emphasised the need to "preserve that which is good in certain cultures, and avoid adopting practices that are detrimental to building a caring African society". Africans should not feel pressured "to be assimilated into the minority cultures".
Mr Maharaj criticised the media coverage of Zuma’s speech. "It is unfortunate that the journalists concerned chose to report the comments in a manner that seeks to problematise them, instead of promoting a debate about deconstruction and decolonisation of the mind as part of promoting reconciliation, nation building, unity and social cohesion."
Some South Africans chose to respond to Mr Zuma’s comments on Twitter.
Congress of the South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi — the owner of four dogs — described himself as an animal lover and proudly black, as well as having compassion for humans too.
A number of African men and women tweeted about them or their family members being dog owners. Twitter also carried a pre-Robben Island picture of Nelson Mandela on the verandah of his Soweto home patting his Rhodesian ridgeback.
City Press editor Ferial Haffejee wondered whether Mr Zuma’s return to "essential culture" was going to be the hallmark of his second presidential term. She tweeted that was sure she had seen "JZ's beautiful son walking a dog in our local park."
University of Cape Town law professor Pierre de Vos said that Mr Zuma’s defence of "an imagined ‘pure’ culture of the past is aimed at stoking an exclusive nationalism, one that rejects hybridity, change and nuance".
Academic Jonathan Jansen tweeted, "Pet dogs not the African way? Where are the branch delegates now?"
While another tweet by @goitsekonopi read, "I don't agree. Loving your dog and treating it well isn't an example of 'white culture'. It's the right thing to do."