Someone at a radio station lit a firestorm of controversy this week, comparing black toddlers to dogs.
In the ensuing row, the broadcaster apologised most profusely, saying people had “every right to be angry and offended”.
But why were many black people so outraged? I think it’s about the relationship between blacks and dogs. If you asked me about it, I’d have to answer obliquely. I’d say it’s, well, complicated.
To some people, a dog is man’s best friend. When it comes to shelter, it may sleep indoors and even share a bed with the owner. It is a familiar visitor to the vet and gets to eat special, nutritionally balanced dog food.
When the elements dictate, it might wear a designer coat, socks or other fancy clothing accessories.
On the contrary, most black dogs (i.e. owned by blacks) have never tasted the likes of Dogmor and Bobtail. Being at the very bottom of the domestic hierarchy, they are fed a mishmash of left over dinner and meatless bones – if they are lucky. Why, many owners themselves battle to sustain a decent meal a day.
Out of necessity, our said “black” canines are lean and mean scavenging machines, unlike their pampered, overweight counterparts elsewhere. And they can smell out a township or village feast from miles away.
For blacks, there’s a historical and cultural complexity here.
Firstly, the dog is traditionally a possession, not a member of the family. It is kept strictly for tasks such as (previously) hunting and (and now) keeping thieves at bay. It sleeps outside, with or without a kennel, summer or winter. And even the dirt poor can own one.
In a world full of racism, attempts have often been made historically to dehumanise blacks by classifying them with dogs. Therefore, the apparent comparison of black kids with dogs would have evoked in too many the painful memories of times when signs like “Blacks and Dogs Not Allowed” were de rigueur.
Historically, who can forget how police dogs became part of the apartheid state’s arsenal of control against black people? It is no coincidence that the outbreak of the 1976 uprisings were preceded by the killing and burning of a police dog that fateful day.
We all know stories of racist dogs (yes, the ones which seem to bark only at black people). Personally, I say we must blame the owner. No dog, I dare say, is born racist!
At a more mundane level, township dogs have been a nuisance for various reasons. These include toppling dustbins at night in search of scraps of food, and pooping all over your carefully tended patch of lawn.
But then, to understand the complexity of the relationship between blacks and dogs, consider this. There are some blacks who treat their dogs just like white people do. They walk them, take them to the vet, buy them dog food and go into deep mourning when the family pooch dies.
Sounds confusing? It should be - as are lots of things about our much vaunted Rainbow Nation.
Like the rainbow itself, our nation comprises not just black and white people. Rather, it is made up of many groups, with diverse cultures and religions, which converge or clash frequently. To the cauldron add language diversity and you have conflict and serious misunderstanding waiting to happen at any time.
At the root of it all are centuries of forced racial separation and suspicion, in which whites were told they were superior to blacks, and that they alone could live off the fat of the land. Blacks, in turn, had a deep sense of grievance, which abides to this day despite political change.
And then, from time to time, the rainbow society throws up something else into the mix, as if to foreground the foolishness of racial separation and stereotyping. For example, what do you do when it turns out that the author of what was considered an anti-black tweet is, in fact, black?
Will the tweet still be considered racist? And does it give whites carte blanche to tweet similarly?
Complexity is the nature of a rainbow, which has not two binary colours, but an array of several which together make it up.
So, welcome to the Rainbow Nation, where things aren’t always black or white – but sometimes are!