On February 11 1908, the poet SEK Mqhayi wrote u-Mbambushe – Induna Enkulu ka Lagwanda (Mbambushe – Chief Ngqika’s chief headman).
The poem was about Chief Ngqika’s spoilt dog, Mbambushe, which the chief treated better than his courtiers.
Mbambushe would grab for himself whatever piece of meat his courtiers were roasting after slaughtering a beast.
Should anyone complain, Mbambushe would attack them and throw them to the ground without the monarch even raising an eyebrow.
It was only when the dog grabbed from the chief’s own plate that he complained.
The dog did as it had always done – it attacked the chief and savagely threw him to the ground.
This was the moment the people, the courtiers in particular, had been waiting for.
They beat the dog to death.
Mqhayi possessed what Christopher Hitchens called an ironic mind.
He wrote the poem as if in mourning of this venerated dog:
Lala Njalo ke Mbambushe
Ndun’ Enkulu Yakulo Ntlushe
Bon’k Ubuntu Ubugqibile
Phyllis Ntantala (Pallo Jordan’s mother) provided the following translation of the poem:
Lie there Mbambushe
Great favourite at the home
All your wants have been fulfilled
You have had the best in life
By nature you were a dog
Created a dog, born a dog
It was by nurture you became
a human being
This gave you power
And all around you feared you
It should be clear at this point that President Jacob Zuma was mistaken when he ascribed the love for dogs to white culture.
The controversy at Ngqika’s place was among dark-skinned, Xhosa-speaking African men.
If anything, this particular controversy demonstrates that African people were just as capable of spoiling their dogs as they were of being offended by such treatment of dogs.
Race had nothing to do with it.
A friend posed what he thought was a trick question to a group of us over meat and whisky over the holidays.
He asked whether we knew how the Xhosa interpret the appearance of a dog in a dream.
We all said it meant the ancestors had visited.
If this does not signify a venerated place for dogs in the African imagination, I don’t know what does.
I am being nonracial about this because I owned a dog I dearly loved.
His name was Buddy and, suffice to say, he was better mannered than Mbambushe.
But if I did spoil Buddy, which I suspect I did at times, why would that place me nearer to white people than to Ngqika?
Why must everything black people do be measured in terms of white culture?
Steve Biko warned about this practice: “While it may be relevant now to talk about black in relation to white, we must not make this our preoccupation, for it can be a negative exercise.”
Frantz Fanon similarly pointed to the danger of this mind-set: “This historical obligation in which men of African culture racialise their claims and speak more of African culture than national culture leads these men down a cul-de-sac.”
We are Africans alright, but perhaps we could take something from the French, who, back in 1850, passed the Gramont Law to make the ill-treatment of pets a misdemeanour.
The real and present danger with the current racial and ethnic nativism is that “cultural identity” has become a political tool to create insider-outside cleavages within the black world and in society at large.
And now we are told that Lindiwe Mazibuko is not African because she is on the other side of the political divide.
But what gives these cultural gatekeepers the right to define who belongs in the African community?
Disagree with the woman if you will, but don’t attack her identity, if only because you will have to do that for many others like her.
Before you know it, you will find yourself on a slippery slope to Rwanda or Bosnia, or many of the societies that have been blighted by ethnic cleansing.
Mqhayi’s poem was prophetic in other respects too.
It can also be used to describe Julius Malema’s relationship with Jacob Zuma.
One could argue that, like Mbambushe, Malema was allowed by Zuma to do as he wished until he attacked Zuma himself, whereupon the ANC came to the president’s defence.
Malema may thus be happy to know that Mqhayi did not put the blame on Mbambushe, but on those who fed him with illusions of grandeur.
But you can rest assured that other Mbambushes will quickly emerge.
That is almost guaranteed in the world of patronage politics.
They will continue to take from our public resources while the rulers look on with almost sadistic glee.
With the president promising business people that their fortunes will multiply if they join the ANC, you can rest assured several Mbambushes will arise and multiply in equal measure.
In 2006, another literary genius, Njabulo Ndebele, wrote rather painfully about how the dog has been the subject of “righteous brutality” in our encounter with colonialism and apartheid.
This was in part a response to Zizi Kodwa speaking of him as a “dog”.
Ndebele described an imaginary scene in which a dog was brutally killed by a group led by Kodwa in a manner similar to how Mbambushe was killed.
Ndebele ends the story on a hopeful note, with a reformed Kodwa addressing a crowd: “Comrades, we have had enough of violence.
For too long we have used the dog as a symbol of abuse. This must now stop.
The dog, comrades, is a special animal. It is intelligent. It is loyal. It is courageous. It is dependable. It is capable of empathy. It cares?.?.?.?Let’s declare 2001 the year of the dog.”
In the same creative spirit as Ndebele, I can imagine a change of heart on the part of the president.
I can hear him at the state of the nation address declaring 2013 the year of the dog and the human being.
I can hear him say: “From Ngqika and his courtiers to white people and black people in the present, love it or hate it, the dog is here to stay.”
And then belting out his favourite song, Awuleth’ Inja Yam?.?.?.