“The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.”
GK Chesterton, The Donkey
Poet GK Chesterton was writing about the donkey when he wrote those words, but they apply all too well to the southern African creature who is often abused and insulted as a ‘brak’ or ‘mangy mongrel’. We’ve all seen them in our travels, trotting at the heels of their owner or sleeping in the sun. But there is an increasing movement of people who believe that these dogs have been misjudged. That rather than being cringing curs they are a fine example of a creature that has been moulded by centuries into a perfect, functional being, in tune with its environment and hardy, multi-talented and loyal. Formed ‘by Africa for Africa’, they are the true indigenous dogs of southern Africa.
The existence of dogs has been closely interwoven with man since the first hungry wolf crept closer to the fireside of early man to snatch at scraps of food. There is evidence that dogs started to become domesticated about 14 000 years ago, with dogs becoming tamer as they adapted to living near humans, although recent studies by Carles Vila of the University of California apparently indicate that domestication might have begun as early as 135 000 years ago. Perhaps humans appreciated the animal’s ability to clean up the mess of communal living areas, lead them to prey and warn of danger, or simply felt the inherent magic of a bond with a wild animal. Wolves and dogs have almost identical DNA, with a difference of about 1% according to geneticist Robert Wayne, and share the same number of bones. Wayne’s studies indicate that dogs began to become differentiated from wolves some 100 000 years ago, with dogs having benefited from their relationship with man so that their numbers grew, while wolves have become scarcer.
Studies by archaeologists indicate that this relationship developed even before humans developed permanent settlements and farming, with these wolf-dogs or ‘protodogs’ accompanying nomadic groups of people. As there were no wolves in Africa, it is believed that the earliest domesticated dogs in Africa were from the Middle East, with fossilised remains found in Egypt dating back to 7400BC. From here dogs began their expansion across Africa, with the earliest South African fossils of domestic dogs found near Ellisras, dating to AD570.
Theories about the origins of these earliest dogs vary, with some believing that they accompanied the Ba-Ntu people in their migration south through the continent in about AD550, while others believe that Khoi herders possessed domesticated dogs almost 300 years before then. Whatever their initial origins, southern African dogs were certainly affected by dogs owned by travellers from the west (the Portuguese and the British) and the east coast Islamic traders before them. Dogs offered their owners companionship, protection, food (either as hunters or even as a food source), and played a role in religion and ritual. They became an essential part of the human lifestyle in Africa.
However, although they lived alongside man, some argue that man played little role in the development or evolution of the dog in southern Africa. Johan Gallant, dog breeder, Kennel Union of South Africa (KUSA) member and dog working trials judge for nearly 30 years, describes the indigenous dog of southern Africa as a ‘land race’, or ‘types of dogs whose evolutionary characteristics have been shaped mainly by their geographical locations and natural environment, and their adaptation to the functional demands of the people with whom they co-exist. They have not been shaped by artificial breeding techniques as seen today’.
In his book, The Story of the African Dog (University of Natal Press, 2002), Johan describes the Africanis, a dog that has led he and his wife Edith to explore the most rural areas of southern Africa, including KZN, Transkei, the Drakensberg and Lesotho, the Kalahari, Swaziland and Namibia. They have become firm supporters of the ‘basic, natural’ dog that they found widespread across the region. Impressed with their hardiness, adaptability, loyalty and intelligence, Johan and Edith believe that the true Africanis is under threat from Western influences.
Johan is chairman of The Africanis Society of Southern Africa that was formed in 1998. The term ‘Africanis’ was introduced by Dr Udo Küsel, at the time director of the National Cultural History Museum, who was enthusiastic about preserving the indigenous dog as part of our cultural heritage. ‘Africanis’ is used as a general term to replace the stigmatising and derogatory names used in the past, and refers to all southern African traditional dogs, not to a particular land race type, in areas where there is no influence from western breeds.
The Society is focused on protecting the future of the indigenous domesticated dog through an educational and awareness drive. Funds are being raised to establish a DNA profile of the Africanis to ensure a genetically accurate description for the future. The Society has set down a code of ethics that those breeding Africanis must adhere to, to ensure that natural breeding standards are maintained and the problems of rigid, westernised breeding are avoided. Johan comments, ‘We want to conserve the physical and mental abilities of the Africanis. We don’t want to modify it in respect of a physical breed standard inspired by cosmetic outward appearance’.
Until the 19th century, dogs were valued for their functionality. They were used for practical activities such as herding and protecting livestock, tracking and hunting prey and guarding homesteads. Dogs in 17th century England were even used to turn the spits for roasting meat. The essence of a ‘good’ dog was defined by its ability to perform roles specified by man.
However, when the Kennel Club was formed in Victorian London in 1873, new standards were used to evaluate dogs. Using strict definitions to differentiate various types into specific breeds, private registers were established to ensure that these dogs were kept ‘pure’ and bred strictly according to what was physically desirable and acceptable. All of a sudden, the way a dog looked was more important than the way he performed. Cross-bred dogs were mongrels, with lesser status than ‘purebreds’. The problem was that these artificial standards of what was ‘right’ for a particular breed could be influenced by human whim and fashions, with little thought for the practical effect on the dogs being bred.
Sian Hall, who has acted as African representative for the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society based in the USA and is currently working towards a PhD at Rhodes University, has produced a comprehensive study of African canines in her book Dogs of Africa (Alpine Publications, 2003). She approaches the study of indigenous dogs from an anthropological perspective, and strongly believes that there should not be one term (Africanis) to describe the various specific types of indigenous dogs that she defines according to appearance (morphology), functionality and the area where they are found.
She describes the Sicha as a medium-sized, slender dog, often with a ridge (an integral feature) that is ‘the only truly indigenous dog among the Zulu today’, while the i-Twina is one of a number of types of dogs found amongst the Xhosa-speakers, with ‘the general conformation of a sight-hound with…lean and racy lines’. The i-Bakhu is a heavier type with flopping ears, not as fast but with greater endurance and tracking abilities, and is found amongst both Xhosa-speakers and in the southern-most reaches of KZN.
‘Distinct types of indigenous dogs have persisted for centuries in southern Africa and are recognised as distinct and defined by their indigenous owners. By including all types under one umbrella as Africanis, we are obliterating what took thousands of years to develop,’ says Sian. ‘African owners, the true owners of these dogs, apply an indigenous classificatory system to these dogs that is based upon morphology as dictated by function. These African classificatory systems are much more fluid and holistic than Western systems that are quite rigid. There are areas where types overlap and merge, but not all types fall under the same general type of dog or Africanis’.
However, she agrees that some form of compromise might be necessary. ‘For indigenous dogs to be fully incorporated into modern Western society, a gelling of the two classificatory systems may be necessary. But under no circumstances should the indigenous system be forsaken for a Western approach. After all, these dogs belong to indigenous African people; they have not been developed in western society.’
Sian believes that the influence of humans on the indigenous dogs of southern Africa cannot be ignored, and therefore the Africanis cannot be a truly ‘pure’ dog as defined by Johan. However, she, like Johan, believes that these dogs are in danger. ‘We must protect the dogs found in the rural kraals before we lose them forever’, she says. “They are an essential part of our African heritage’. She feels, however, that by registering the various types of indigenous dog under one label with KUSA, they will inevitably be on the road to becoming a distinct breed. Like Johan she enthuses about their resilience, alertness and loyalty. ‘They are low-maintenance and easy to keep, with no parlour-grooming needs and natural resistance to ticks and parasites. They’re clean, loving, brave and highly intelligent. They are multi-functional dogs as they’ve not been bred to be highly specialised as have western breeds.’
Owners of indigenous dogs are increasingly cross-breeding them with western breeds such as the greyhound, either because what is western is popular and topical, while the indigenous dog is perceived as a left-over from the backward, rural environment, or because greyhounds are seen as the ultimate speedster in hunts that are run as a form of gambling. Rather than using one or two dogs to bring down a single animal for the pot, groups of men, sometimes not even dog owners but those with the money to hire the best available, meet at remote locations, frequently conservancies or reserves, to see which dogs can bring down the most game, while bets are placed. Indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife ensues. Confrontation by landowners and/or the authorities frequently blows up into major incidents, with dogs often shot on the spot.
However, the indigenous dog, while combining the abilities of both the sight-hound (a dog that hunts using its sight) and the scent-hound (that tracks down its prey), is not a brutal, blood-thirsty hunter. Rather, these dogs make the perfect canine accompaniment to any human activity, and can be trained to any number of skills. Johan and Edith search out the best of the puppies and young dogs that they find in their rural travels, and bring them home in an attempt to increase the urbanised population of Africanis. Mortality rates in the natural environment are very high, although Africanis bitches make excellent mothers, because puppies are often left to fend for themselves at a very early age. This natural selection process has contributed to the hardiness of the breed, but Johan believes that some form of human control has to be implemented to ensure the survival of the Africanis. He is emphatic that it is not the aim of the Africanis Society to register the Africanis as a breed. ‘We want to conserve, not improve, the Africanis’, he stresses.
Johan and Edith select puppies by studying the parents, and choose those that show character, with strong bones and tough feet and pads. They avoid those with lack of pigmentation on their nose and a ridge on their back, as these have respectively been associated with skin problems and a hereditary dermoid sinus, or ingrown cyst that occasionally develops in the ridge. The coat can be any colour, and the ears can be pert or drooping. Johan emphasises that they focus on the functionality of the Africanis, rather than on their appearance. ‘The aim of the Africanis Society is not to make these dogs fashionable’, says Johan. These dogs have specific needs and types of environment where they will be happy, namely farms or places with plenty of space. They are also highly social dogs, integrating well with other animals and craving human company, although not overwhelming or pushy with their affections.
Both Sian and Johan are passionate about their efforts to promote the indigenous dogs of southern Africa, and both say that they were inspired to write their books as a way of educating a wider audience about the attractions of this homegrown canine. Both are emphatic that as inhabitants of Africa, South Africans should value this brave and trusting dog that is so in tune with the rhythms of the continent. Why spend vast sums of money for a western breed, which might have weaknesses or be unsuitable for a variety of reasons? We should start admiring a creature that has been moulded through time to be the very best of its kind for our country – a truly African dog.
First published in The Quill
Books by Johan and Edith Gallant
- Johan and Edith Gallant, “SOS DOG” The purebred dog hobby re-examined
- Gallant, J. (2002), “The Story of the African Dog”