The American dream is often described as the upwardly mobile ideal of having a good home in suburbia with a white picket fence and a dog playing in the garden. The African dream, on the other hand, has evaded any precise description. The reason for this is that Africa is complex. The continent’s uniformity cannot be exaggerated. It is best defined as a fusion of different experiences and diverse peoples. Colonialism, for its own part, threw a spanner into the works of what was originally, authentic African culture.
It is against this background that Jacob Zuma’s remarks, to the effect that Africans are corrupting their culture by copying ‘white’ behaviour, must be considered.
Speaking at a traditional event in the province of Kwazulu-Natal in his first public appearance since being re-elected the president of the African National Congress a week ago, Jacob Zuma controversially asserted that having a pet dog is not African. He further opined that black South Africans who buy a dog, take it for walks and to the vet are “copying” white culture. Mr Zuma’s office attempted to defend the remarks on the grounds that the message of his speech ‘was the need to decolonise the African mind post-liberation’.
The flaws in the South African president’s reasoning ought to be immediately evident: Were dogs brought to Africa by the colonialists? Do black people need to learn from white people that dogs require feeding? And exercise? Or to go to the vet? More importantly, what is African culture? Is it language? Surely not – if you put a Zimbabwean, an Egyptian and a Kenyan in the same room, chances are they will not speak the same language, unless they resort to the colonial fallback, English. Is African culture to do with food? That cannot be: most Zimbabweans would consider a Cameroonian dish consisting of yams and ‘pepe’ tortuous to eat. Likewise, most East Africans would find Zimbabwean food, say sadza nenyama, extremely bland for its lack of their usual oriental melange of spices. One cannot seriously contend that it has to do with dressing…just strolling through Sandton or the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront reveals that the clothes typically sold in South Africa are anything but ‘African’ in any perceived cultural sense. There is no such thing as a homogenous African traditional dress. The same Africans that reject mini-skirts as not being ‘African’ flock to the traditional reed dance in Swaziland to gawk at scantily dressed, topless Swazi girls in the name of – you guessed it – culture! Is polygamy African – let’s not even get started on that one.
And now for the saddest part:
Inherent in Zuma’s comment is the view that white people are not African. And that African culture is completely inconsistent with anything remotely linked to colonialism. Of course, this offends common sense in view of the numerous vestiges of “white culture” that dominate African life, especially in South Africa – the German cars, the Italian suits, the Irish whiskey, Swiss watches and the English language.
And so, to reduce African culture to a discussion on dog ownership is irreverent; and to allege that black people ‘copy’ white culture is desperate. Our culture is so much bigger than that. The mere fact that there is no agreement amongst African people as to whether they like to own dogs or not demonstrates that this aspect of human life (as is the case with most other things people carelessly define as ‘culture’) is too subjective to form the proper basis for what defines African culture. Accordingly, to define culture merely on racial grounds is misplaced. Black Americans and white Americans share the same culture – they are American. The same can be said, to a large extent, about black British people and white British people. This should apply with the same force to being African. A black Zimbabwean may have more in common, from a cultural perspective, with a white Zimbabwean than with a black Nigerian. It’s not to do with kinky hair or straight hair, light skin or dark skin. It is about identity – that unique factor that unites people, and not what divides them.
And so no, you will not be more African if you kick your dog.
Zuma is definitely in the dog house for this one.