Shortly before Christmas, President Jacob Zuma addressed a gathering of traditional leaders some 30 kms from the site in Howick where Mr Mandela was captured by the South African Police in August 1962. During his speech, President Zuma declared that pet ownership belonged in white culture, and leads some people to love animals more than people. This left many South Africans barking mad. Funda Nenja, an NGO in Howick that works with disadvantaged children and their dogs, was quick to seize the opportunity provided by the President to raise awareness about their project and its transformative impact on the lives of participants, They also invited Jacob Zuma to visit their project.

Retired children's rights activist and Funda Nenja volunteer Yvonne Spain also wrote the following article for the local newspaper, The Witness. (The story ran on January 3.) Yvonne has graciously allowed me to reprint her article here. Funda Nenja’s plans for 2013 include raising funds to employ a Social Worker, developing their syllabus into a manual (in English and isiZulu) so that their model can be replicated elsewhere in South Africa, and undertaking research into the benefits of their project on the lives of the children.

"Funda Nenja" means "teaching by the dog."

Pets are beneficial to societyCaring for people and caring for animals are not mutually exclusive practices: Introducing Funda Nenja

By Yvonne Spain 

The media furore around President Zuma’s comments on dog ownership and white culture which he made during his recent visit to Impendle, is vexing me as a white person, a humanist and an animal lover. I have been engaging with the points he raised, which was no doubt his intention, and share some of his views. But what made my hackles rise, was how he racialised the ownership of pets by declaring that this practice belongs to white culture only. I was subsequently very grateful to Zwelinzima Vavi for his quick rebuttal on Twitter accompanied by the photograph of his dogs Superhero and Maradona. The fallout from the un-presidential comments meant that once again his Special Envoy, Mac Maharaj had to explain what the President really meant and amongst other things, said that the President was only trying to ‘decolonise the African mind”.

 As a white person who benefited from apartheid, I have been trying to decolonise my mind for years. In fact I remember my first ever letter to the press.  As a teenager I wrote to the Rand Daily Mail lamenting the fact that in those days white drivers relegated black passengers to the back seats of their vehicles. Of the many replies this letter elicited, some came from Soweto thanking me for raising the issue, and others came from suburbia citing fears about prosecution under the Immorality Act  -  white men felt they were liable to be stopped by the police if caught driving with a black woman in the front seat next to them. Nowadays if ever I need a reminder of the absurdities and heartlessness of apartheid, I recall this correspondence and use it as a reality check, which keeps me positive about living in a free South Africa, despite all its challenges.  I believe, as I did back then, that people seen driving with their dog next to them, while people are travelling in the back of their bakkie or sedan - in any weather - are worthy of the contempt  of the President.

As a children’s rights activist, I also found myself identifying with Maharaj’s words that "people should guard against … loving animals more than other human beings".  This is because I remember how difficult it was to raise funds for the Pietermaritzburg Street Children Project (now a project of Youth for Christ KZN) in the 90s; and indeed became involved with the project because of my outrage in the late 80s, when the then City Council rejected an application for a shelter for street children in Havelock Road, and approved instead, a dog grooming parlour on the same premises.

As for culture, it is a culture of violence that prevails in South Africa.  It is ironic that the President’s comments followed shortly after the annual Sixteen Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, during which horrific acts against the most vulnerable in society continued unabated. Perhaps the President should not vilify pet ownership, but initiate projects that engender respect and responsibility for all living creatures to help turn this unacceptable situation around? During a trawl through Google, I found research to support the view that society would benefit from such an initiative.  Specifically, in a paper by Eleonora Gullone, “Conceptualising Animal Abuse with an Antisocial Behaviour”, (School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, Monash, Victoria 3800, Australia; January 2011); the author concludes that “… there is substantial evidence pointing to the very important role that a pattern of abusive behaviour toward animals can play in raising the alarm that other criminal behaviours are likely to be occurring in the same environment ...”

Caring for people and caring for animals are not mutually exclusive practices, and if the latter was actively promoted there could be numerous positive spin offs for the well-being of society. This has been observed by a brave NGO that works with young people and their dogs in Mpophomeni, just down the road from Impendle. Funda Nenja develops respect and compassion for all living things by promoting bonds with dogs, using dog training as a vehicle. Every Friday afternoon after school, a number of volunteers (many of whom live in Mpophomeni) meet with 70 young dog handlers.  Only gentle dog training methods are used, and the benefit of sterilising and vaccinating all dogs against rabies is emphasised. The need for self-discipline, commitment and responsibility is learnt. This, in turn, has been seen to develop the personal growth and self-worth of the youngsters who take part in the project. 

We should remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest humanitarians and de-colonisers of all time who said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

** All photos were kindly shared by Funda Nenja

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