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Dog Walkers

“Spending money on buying a dog, taking it to the vet and for walks belonged to white culture and was not the African way”, President Jacob Zuma.

Middle class South Africans – people I know as family and friends, but also the strangers I see at the mall and gym, and those pulling into drives behind high walls – are a strange bunch. On the one hand they are driven and optimistic, in a word entitled. But just as often they are a fraught mix of pent-up emotions: they feel vaguely guilty about a past that is hard to rehabilitate. But mostly they’re complacent, in a word lazy. If tomorrow is like yesterday, well, that’s okay.

Living in Johannesburg, especially if you drive it’s streets just after the early morning rush hour, it is not hard to spot the way the past repeats itself. The complexion of servitude is pretty obvious in the city, even as things change. There is a familiarity to who it is that greets you at every traffic light, who hustles money from you at every vacant parking bay. When I see domestic workers, some in uniform, walking their owners’ dogs, it is hard not to reflect on how unaffected the rituals of suburban affluence are during this period of seismic urban change.

It is not just the walkers with their leashes that reiterate the past. I know dogs that only bark at black people. Then again, there are dogs that also bark at whites. Increasingly, however, South Africa’s suburbs of fear are casting everyone as a stranger, someone to be barked at. Timidity, that genteel condition of suburbs everywhere, has given way to a kind of guardedness, a nervous defensiveness in which pets seemingly take on the values and belief systems of their owners. Possibly; I’m not entirely sure.

Thing is, I don’t personally own a dog. I used to walk Mexico, a beautiful ridgeback that has recently come off anti-depressants. Even Johannesburg’s upper class canines need help of some sort. Mexico is not unusual. I think most dog owners are a bit like Mister Moonreddy, the small mild-tempered man with glossy black hair in Ahmed Essop’s short story from 1978: “Mister Moonreddy cared for his dog as he had cared for no one else in his life. He fed it the choicest of meat; from the hotel he would bring fried chicken.” This love extends to ensuring that their pedigreed pets are stretched and walked around the block.

A few months back, a friend of mine looking for a domestic posted an advert on Facebook. One of the job requirements involved walking the dachshunds three times a week. I was astounded, but also not. People in Johannesburg are not only lazy; they are busy, really busy, with work, with home improvements, with kids, with car payments, with groceries, with holiday escapes – with the guilt of not walking the dog. Yes, implicit in this series of portraits is social commentary about men and women quietly engaged in a complicated ritual of leisure and labour. But it is also an essay on the unremarkable facets of suburban life in post-apartheid South Africa. And it is about love: that of pet owners, dog walkers, and the dogs themselves, whose love is sometimes abundant, their enthusiasm straining the leash that confines.