South Africa president prefers people over pets

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South Africa President Jacob Zuma

South Africa President Jacob Zuma (AP Photo)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s president says a dog should not be man’s best friend.

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 Wednesday 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 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. Nelson Mandela, now 94 years old and ailing, became the country’s first black president as well as a symbol of reconciliation among all South Africans, though 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 convince Africans 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.

Zuma “referred to what people should guard against, such as loving animals more than other human beings,” the statement said. “He made the well-known example of people who sit with their dogs in front in a van 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.”

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.”

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