The Decolonial Dog


In late December 2012, President Jacob Zuma, “addressing a crowd of thousands” at Impendle in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and reflecting on the pressing project of “promoting ubuntu and maintaining respect and high regard for other human beings and African culture”, advised the audience that we should not “elevate our love for our animals above our love for other human beings.” Recalling all-too-familiar images of whites 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” and who “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’s speech was generally interpreted in the press to mean that dog ownership is “unAfrican”.

Responding to the subsequent public outcry from animal-loving and dog-owning South Africans, Mac Maharaj issued a statement in defence of the president:

The President in his wide-ranging address referred to what people should guard against, such as loving animals more than other human beings . . . This is not to say that animals should not be loved or cared for. The message merely emphasised the need not to elevate our love for our animals above our love for other human beings. He emphasised [that] the need is to preserve that which is good in certain cultures and avoid adopting practices that are detrimental to building a caring African society.

More than that, the essential message from the President was the need to decolonise the African mind post-liberation to enable the previously oppressed African majority to appreciate and love who they are and uphold their own culture. They should not feel pressured to be assimilated into the minority cultures, he said . . .

The President’s view is that as we move towards the second phase of socio-economic freedom, cultural freedom should not be left behind. [Emphasis added]

Zuma’s remarks “prompted howls of controversy” that reverberated across the world via reports by Al Jazeera, The Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph, and BBC World, indicating that the proper place of the postcolonial canis familiaris (ethically, politically, physically) is a subject that touches a nerve.

These conversational opening remarks, which dramatise some of the cultural tensions related to the animal question and its unfurling within the postcolonial context, provide the impetus for the following paper. I aim to mark a preliminary investigation into the proximities of the animal question and decolonial scholarship, organising the enquiry around two poles. The first, the diagnostic, will attempt to rediscover the obscured social history of animals. Given that the “animal” is often figured as “natural”, which is to say a part of Nature, and therefore an immutable feature of the landscape, it will be the task of this section to recognise the contingency with which animals have emerged into our social discourses and material lives. Indeed, selective breeding practices, the rise of industrial-scale slaughterhouses, and the centuries-long symbolic deployment of animals as the border totems of a human–animal divide will show themselves to be deeply imbricated in the imperial project. In fact, the imperial conquest is unimaginable and unsupportable if the crucial position of animals is not restored as its existential raison d’être.

Because the scope of such a project is vast, I will limit the case study to a history of canines and their deployment within specifically British-centred colonial rule. One objective is to demonstrate that our present “modern” relations to animals are only achievable at the expense of obliterating pre-colonial human–animal relations and reifying the modern, colonially imported form as an immemorial and fixed relation.

The second pole of inquiry is what we might call the prescriptive. Ramon Grosfoguel has articulated a comprehensive nine-point series of what he calls “heterarchies”, or “entangled global hierarchies”, which map the specific reorganisations of hierarchical power that journeyed to the “colonies” during the so-called “age of discovery”. Among them are the institutions of patriarchy, racism, the global division of labour, the suppression of indigenous language and cosmology, and various other epistemic hierarchies. It is my firm contention that the decolonial canon as an all-inclusive global ethical project could be profitably broadened by the absorption of animals as corporeal victims of suffering and exploitation. (The ethical prescriptions of a decolonial thinker like Grosfoguel are logically coextensive with the inclusion of animals, and thus their omission comes across as striking, given his attempt at systematicity.)

This contention is suggested both by the radical necessity of animals and their domestication and reimagining within the modern-colonial lifeworld, and, further, is granted its urgency by the multi-layered implication of animals in the history of colonial development. Even when approaching the matter in anthropocentric terms, one cannot fail to register the reality that speciesist forms of power relations are nested within, and facilitate, oppressive inter-anthropic relations. But beyond this, a true decoloniality must seek a balance that does not spirit away modern forms of animal suffering, for to do so would be to commit the ultimate reification and fail to reintegrate animals within their human-directed social history.


Lance Van Sittert and Sandra Swart open their suite of essays entitled Canis familiaris: A Dog History of South Africa with the pertinent observation that “[d]ogs, like humans, are products both of culture and nature” that have been “entangled with human societies for twelve thousand years.” Domesticated dogs, they write, have evolved with us at “a number of sites” where human and wolf (Canis lupus) populations were sympatric: for example, parts of North America, the Middle East, and North Africa. Primitive domestic dogs, then, occupy a number of genetic nodes, spatio-temporally indicating, importantly, that neither the idea of the dog nor the fleshy thing “dog” is an entity necessarily associated historically with one human culture (contrary to Zuma’s claims). Africa is by no means excluded from this narrative. In fact, Egyptian tomb paintings represent some of the earliest evidence of “distinguishable dog breeds.” Vasco Da Gama in 1497 observed domesticated dogs with a San community at St Helena Bay. Later, during the 18th century, explorers’ accounts of the interior recorded the presence of dogs “among various indigenous groups.” It is speculated that these dogs were introduced to the southern part of Africa by “Bantu-speaking agriculturists and/or Khoikhoi pastoralists.”

Dogs played an important role as hunters, agents of “vermin” control for many of these groups:

[T]heir role in hunting impacted most heavily on social rituals. With dogs a hunting strategy was developed. Prey formerly hunted with bow and arrow could be more efficiently tracked and hunted with dogs . . . This was particularly influential . . . for groups like the Zulu, who developed this hunting practice further into the cattle-horn formation utilised in combat, and which they were to use in their wars against European colonial settlement.

The significance of the “canine revolution” in precolonial sub-Saharan Africa is evident also in Xhosa culture, where dogs were regarded not only as important hunting co-conspirators, but also as sentinels against the thikoloshe.

From these brief reflections we see that the human-companion dog’s presence in Africa far precedes colonial intervention, and that dog ownership is certainly not an uncomplicatedly white form of human–animal relations. Far from resolving this issue, however, we have yet to explain how it then came to be that dog ownership, and relatedly certain ideas regarding animal welfare, imposed itself on these precolonial articulations of the relationship.

Van Sittert notes that dogs were “an integral member of the ‘portmanteau biota’ that accompanied European settlement of the subcontinent from the mid seventeenth century.” [C. Alfred Crosby defines “portmanteau biota” as “[the] collective name for the Europeans and all the organisms they brought with them” as part of the creation of “Neo-Europes”.] Initially the primary function of settler dogs was to serve as alarms during travel. Many of these imported European breeds quickly came to be utilised by the local population, a notable instance being the Xhosa’s use of the boer hond (a kind of mongrel “wolf hound” popular among the Dutch and later the British military) in Mlanjeni’s War in the 1850s. It is reported that these dogs were used to hunt and “pull down British soldiers”, who were “caught alive” and killed.

In the mid 19th century, concurrent with the establishment of towns and cities, there emerged a “new sensibility” towards animals within the white urban middle class: animal welfarism. It is with the establishment of animal welfarism as a sensibility and discourse that we see the most aggressive erasure of precolonial/indigenous forms of human–dog relations taking place at both the physical and ideological level. Slowly, as the need for animals to cohabitate with humans in towns and cities was eradicated by various technological advances, the urban space became artificially sanitised, insulated largely from the dirty work of animal-use, apart from in its most “detached and ritualised” sense (i.e. hunting and pet ownership). These “urban civilisations” understood themselves as diametrically opposed both to the animal-populated, dirty countryside and to the “brutish” and “backward” habits of the countryside. It is no surprise, then, that with this newly fledged concern for the “dumb creation” came the proliferation of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) branches, as well as the criminalisation of animal cruelty and the establishment of a South African Kennel Club. These institutions forged a sticky network of binaries/hierarchies serving to demarcate those who are brutish from those who are “humane”, those animals (including human beings) worthy of protection from those considered expendable pests. Of course this discourse did not exist in isolation, but was coextensive with “Victorian typological thinking about race, quality, purity and progress”, with its obsession with breed purity and its exertion of the most magnificent power over nature: namely, the ability to genetically manufacture leisure animals.

During this time, British colonial authorities oversaw numerous ruthless canicides against indigenous domestic (“kaffir”) dogs. Although some of these killings were spurred by rabies outbreaks, many were legitimised by the same “civilised” sensibilities that gave momentum to the welfarist discourse. A prominent example, elucidated by Jacob Tropp, is the aggressive “destruction” of Africans’ dogs, motivated primarily by a desire to detooth their hunting capacity. This project was rationalised and legitimised by colonial conservationist discourse, and also by the “humane” urban welfarists who enjoyed privileged access (through the acquisition of hunting licenses) to the forests formerly “plagued” by Africans and their dogs. Colonial authorities, as Tropp writes, made short work of categorising “Africans’ dogs as trespassers, predators and vermin.” These canicides were met with dismay and anger by those who lost their dogs. It is rather telling that, in spite of the burgeoning sentimentality towards domestic dogs in the settler population, colonial authorities could only conceptualise Africans’ rage at the murder of their dogs as anger over the loss of property or the loss of a means of hunting. Even Tropp discounts the sympathetic and emotive overtones in the testimonies of those who lost their animals. He is careful, for example, to stress the ubiquity of dog ownership “across the Eastern Cape and Transkei” and the value of canines as hunters, herders, controllers of pests, and trackers of livestock. He explains that Thembu men and boys in the Transkei had developed methods of training their dogs to herd “differently coloured cattle according to the way their owners whistled” and that many men went to great lengths to ensure the welfare of their dogs. For example, quoting Tiyo Soga’s recollections on the matter, Tropp writes of men who crafted fine beds of “dried ox hide . . . placed at the top end of the hut next to [their own] resting place” for their dogs, and, furthermore, of the bestowing of medicines and charms upon hunting dogs to enhance their performance. The suppressed premise that “indigenous” South Africans related to their dogs and other animals strictly as property or a means to an end reflects, at best, the end result of a systematic destruction and loss of this information or, at worst, the persistence of the idea that emotional/sentimental relationships with animals were the exclusive preserve of the white settler middle class (or perhaps a combination of both). Van Sittert and Swart perceive this problem too, pointing out the dominance of the “vantage point of the settler/white middle class” in historical scholarship on dog–human relationships in Africa, and arguing that the lack of social-history writing on this aspect of African civilisations occludes any valuable knowledge regarding the shifting “place and meaning of the dog in African cultures across the region.”

Coincident with the settlers’ relentless extermination of African dogs were the brutal methods of punishment employed to teach Africans in colonial Kenya and South Africa the value of empathy towards (certain) animals, with Africans routinely beaten for the mistreatment of domestic animals. Here again, sportsmanly (ab)use of animals was rationalised as the natural or appropriate human–animal relationship, and was thus exempt from the scrutiny of animal welfarists, allowing colonial forms of animal cruelty to flourish into important socio-cultural institutions.

Moving, finally, to the “post-colonial dog”, Van Sittert and Swart observe the maintenance by the Union and Apartheid states of the existing colonial dog ontologies, with minor revisions here and there to suit the Afrikaner narrative. Due to urbanisation and increasing levels of affluence, white dog-ownership boomed in the 1960s, creating “a burgeoning market for specialist services and products [including] [p]rivate veterinary services.” Animal birth-control—a more “humane alternative to canicide”—became a mainstay of white middle-class dog ownership, as did pet vaccination, which Swart and Van Sittert argue “encouraged a new affection and anthropomorphism of dogs among the middle class[, which coupled with . . . ] commodification helped consolidate the dog’s place . . . as a member of the white middle-class household.” Even the indigenous kaffir dog, pushed to the brink of “extinction” at the hands of settlers, found a new home within the dog-craze sweeping white South Africa, with an African Indigenous Dog Project established for the purpose of their resurrection. The project remains an exclusively white pursuit with “no perceptible purchase on the popular imagination of the black majority.” In terms of animal welfarism, the doctrine remained almost exclusively at the service of the white middle class, who regarded themselves as the custodians of animals against the “innate cruelty in obeisance to irrational superstition” governing the black population.

In addition, the 1960s saw the rise of the police dog and the guard dog, reflected in the increased popularity of “large, fierce dogs” among whites in response to “escalating black opposition to apartheid after 1960”, which in turn helped earn dogs the reputation among the black population as “symbol[s] of white oppression” in South Africa. With each escalation in black anti-apartheid resistance, there was a concomitant spike in the numbers of security dogs under the employ of the white population. These dogs, variously purposed as police dogs, domestic guard dogs and private-security dogs, were often

trained or even manufactured by the state apparatus. By the 1970s the police dog school was graduating 300 animals per annum, which, together with a proliferation in private obedience training schools, produced a large pool of dogs for corporate and private security.

A number of interesting arguments emerge from the foregoing discussion: principally, that power relations have been radically modified by the importation of colonial ways of knowing and organising social life. Pre-existing relations between indigenous humans and dogs have been effaced and replaced by a seemingly immutable modern standard.

There is, therefore, a kernel of truth to Zuma’s remarks, but—if not complemented by a broader historic perspective—they run the risk of falling prey to the same colonial mystification that alienates Africans from animals. To deny the pre-existing African relationship with animals and the specific ontologies that existed before the colonial reification is thus to submit to the same logic of historical distortion.


I would like to now briefly turn to the prescriptive question, and thereby broaden the scope of analysis from the question of dogs in South Africa to that of animals in decolonial futures. It is my contention that here lies the deepest tension between Zuma’s remarks regarding dogs—specifically that we should not “elevate our love for animals over our love for other human beings”—and a truly radical, transgressive decolonial vision. What I have aimed to show above is that any question of the ontological status of animals and their position within existing hierarchies of power is contingent on our global situation. In what follows I will make some gestures towards the case that the speciesism inherent in global systems of power must be dismantled alongside all other expressions of dominatory power that are facilitated within what Anibal Quijano has called the matrix of coloniality of power. This analysis aims to show firstly that there exists an instrumental value in the disestablishment of speciesist hierarchies, specifically the abolition of an available discourse of exclusion that has time and again been deployed to exclude certain groups of human beings from the sphere of moral legitimacy. Secondly, and more importantly, I hope to give compelling reasons for why animals should, by extension of the most basic moral presuppositions of decolonial thought, be taken seriously as those whose bodies and labour are also coercively utilised within coloniality. What shall emerge from this argument is not only a case for animals within decolonial thought, but also a valuable set of reflections for the existing animal rights movement, whose current status is that of a largely parochial and racist movement, maligned by the Left and plagued by its inability to forge meaningful allyship with extant radical humanist projects. [Note: I use the term “animal rights” with hesitation, since there is widespread disagreement among animal ethicists regarding whether a rights-based approach is an appropriate ethical framework for humans and animals alike. However, it remains a useful political “catch-all” for an ethical project that seeks to undermine the more-or-less arbitrary moral distinction between humans and animals. It can be contrasted with animal welfarism, which seeks to maintain exploitative animal-use industries but reform them by affording, at best, the right to “humane” exploitation.]

Quijano writes that essential to a thoroughgoing critique of the “European paradigm of rationality/modernity” is the “[extrication] of oneself from the linkages between rationality/modernity and coloniality, first of all, and definitely from all power which is not constituted by free decisions made by free people.” Quijano criticises the “European paradigm of rational knowledge” on the basis of its “subject-object”-oriented epistemological framework, the modern iteration forged by René Descartes in The Meditations, which insists upon a sharp distinction between the rational, thinking self (subject) and the other (object) that is external to the subject. These objects of knowledge are understood as ontologically passive and fixed, their ambiguity existing only insofar as the subject has failed to categorise them (and thus distinguish them from other objects) and failed to locate their proper place in the order of things.

As Quijano remarks, this system of knowledge production carries with it an insidious “radical dualism” between “divine reason and nature.” Unsurprisingly, then, this epistemological framework also facilitates the hierarchisation of all life according to the yardstick of rationality, which legitimises the exclusion of every other perspective but that of the West. That which is external to Western/rational subjectivity is seen as different and therefore fundamentally unequal:

[O]nly European culture is rational, it can contain “subjects”—the rest are not rational, they cannot be or harbor subjects. As a consequence, the other cultures are different in the sense that they are unequal, in fact inferior, by nature. They only can be “objects” of knowledge or/and of domination practices.

This distinction between that rational excellence worthy of the title “subject” and everything else, which exists meaningfully only insofar as it is useful to the subject, in fact finds Western articulation much earlier than Descartes—Aristotelian virtue ethics are just one example. Aristotle believed that the proper function of man was above all reason, and reason of a very specific kind. All other faculties, in his analysis, are deflated in importance—emotion, perception, fellow-feeling—and are made to stoop before the divine human faculty:

For living is obviously shared even by plants, while what we are looking for is something special to a human being. We should therefore rule out the life of nourishment and growth. Next would be some sort of sentient life, but this again is clearly shared by the house, the ox, indeed by every animal. What remains is a life, concerned in some way with the action of the element that possesses reason.

Aristotle believed that pure contemplation was the preserve of the gods, but that humanity could enjoy its slice of heaven-on-Earth through the proper engagement of our rational faculty. The function (ergon) of all other entities (objects) was defined only in the sense of their most basic biological welfare and their utility to the thinking (white, educated, Greek, monied) man. Thus, the proper function of a horse is to run fast and “carry its rider”. These others, according to Aristotle, could never partake in happiness (the aim of all morally considerable life); their ranks included, of course, slaves and those foreign brutes who were beyond reason, existing in a liminal space between human and animal.

I draw attention to this early articulation of human supremacy primarily to highlight its coextension through the Eurocentric epistemologies that hierarchise the world primarily along the fault lines of race. It is well known, and unsurprising in this picture, that many early racist typographies leaned heavily on the distinction between man and animal, and furthermore that speciesism/speciesist discourse is deployed almost wherever there is the need for the hierarchisation of human life. The 20th and 21th centuries are no exception. In “Less than Human: The Psychology of Cruelty”, David Livingstone Smith points out that,

[d]uring the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Hutus involved in the Rwanda[n] genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals . . . sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans were denizens of the bottom of the human category, when they were even granted human status. Mostly, they were seen as “soulless animals.”

It is reasonable, I suspect, in light of this discourse to assert that the disassemblage of the “multiple and heterogenous global hierarchies . . . of sexual, political, epistemic, economic, spiritual, linguistic and racial forms of domination and exploitation” cannot and will not be realised without the simultaneous eradication of the global hierarchy of speciesist exploitation. The corollary of this, of course, is that speciesist hierarchies will also not be dissolved without the dissolution of the colonial/racial hierarchies that, according to Grosfoguel and Quijano, are “the organising principle that structures all of the multiple hierarchies of this world.” The animal rights movement must take heed of this recommendation, and reckon with it, for as a movement it appears deeply ideologically indebted to a highly racialised discourse of animal welfare/anti-cruelty (elucidated briefly above). One need only look to the feverish bleatings of animal rights activists about the “irrational”, “unnecessary” ceremonial slaughter of animals (especially dogs and cats, those species favoured within the Eurocentric species hierarchy), such as the Chinese Yulin festival or the Nepalese Gadhimai festival, for evidence of the blatant ethnophobia that pervades the movement. These modes of slaughter, seen as unmodern, are problematised by activists at the expense of recognising the marginalised animal bodies who labour with marginalised humans in the peripheral zones of industrial slaughterhouses and factory farms, which are rationalised within Western economic reductionist logics.

Finally, it must be noted that the abolition of speciesist global hierarchies should not be regarded as merely incidental to the decolonial project, which stipulates a radical humanism as its ethical frontier; rather, it should be seen as integral within its own right, as the extension of the core principles of this political project. Without the inclusion of animals as subjects of domination, as Billy Ray-Belcort argues, settler–colonial power apparatuses will never be “totally disrupted . . . [or even] imagined”. Grosfoguel writes that

[t]he system of exploitation is a crucial space of intervention that requires broader alliances along not only racial and gender lines but also along class lines and among a diversity of oppressed groups around the radicalization of the notion of social equality. But instead of Eurocentric modernity’s limited, abstract and formal notion of equality, the idea here is to extend the notion of equality to every relation of oppression, such as racial, class, sexual or gender.

There is no good reason why the speciesist axis of oppression, which facilitates the obliteration of 56 billion animals per year (roughly 1800 per second) in slaughterhouses and farms alone, should be excluded from this project. This is especially the case when we take seriously the fact that this axis is articulated through precisely the same epistemological framework that allows other white supremacist hierarchies to function: namely, the distinction between those with the rational faculty and those without it.


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Gabriele James is a graduate scholar of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the subject of violence in the Animal Liberation Movement. Her principle research interests include animal ethics and, more recently, the Unity Movement in South Africa. Outside of academia, she co-runs a vegan bakery called Rumsy’s Noose, and otherwise enjoys spending time on the mountain with her family and other animals.