“I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”
So said Nelson Mandela in his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," which was published in 1995 -- one year after the revered freedom fighter was elected as the first black president of South Africa.
Before assuming the presidency, Mandela became the officially recognized leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990, just as the majority-black party gained legal recognition as a political bloc.
Before that, he spent 27 years in jail for his anti-apartheid activism.
And before that, Mandela and his family members were the proud owners of a dog -- a Rhodesian Ridgeback. But to hear current ANC leader and South African President Jacob Zuma tell it, that biographical detail calls Mandela’s blackness in to question.
According to the local newspaper The Mercury, Zuma said in a Wednesday speech that keeping dogs as pets was a part of white culture -- something black South Africans should not emulate. He added that people who kept canine companions and loved them more than they loved people suffered a “lack of humanity.”
This isn’t the first time Zuma has stirred up controversy with seemingly off-the-cuff remarks, many of which focus on adherence to traditional customs.
Zuma, a member of the Zulu tribe, has four wives and has criticized women who choose to remain single, adding that rearing children is “extra training for a woman.”
He also said in November that traditional courts, which use tribal chiefs and village elders to settle disputes, should be legally recognized because South Africans should not abide by the “white man’s way” of solving problems.
And on Wednesday, in the same speech during which he made disparaging comments about dog ownership, Zuma said that it was wrong to imitate other cultures, condemning black women who use hair-straightening products.
“Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white,” he said.
Zuma’s critics point out that comments like these are in direct contradiction to Mandela’s philosophies. The former president, now retired from the public spotlight and in frail health at the age of 94, downplayed racial differences in favor of promoting harmony and progress.
Still, Zuma is not in danger of falling from grace just yet. The ANC enjoys popular support, resting as it does on the legacy of ending apartheid. Zuma was re-elected to serve as party leader on Dec. 18, which means he will almost certainly win a second presidential term in the general elections of 2014.
But the fact remains that Zuma is presiding over a fractured party, and his comments this week are just another indication that he is out of touch with the many South Africans who no longer see inequality as solely a racial issue.
The ANC has implemented programs over the years to promote equality, and South Africa today boasts the strongest economy on the continent. But it also suffers one of the world’s worst income gaps, with unemployment at 26 percent -- up to 50 percent for black youths -- and rampant poverty. Zuma has been accused of corruption; he is also frequently criticized for spending millions of dollars to upgrade his personal residence.
A series of labor strikes this summer called attention to the issue of inequality, with thousands demonstrating against poor salaries and unsafe working conditions in the mining, transportation and farming industries. At least 50 people died as a result of clashes between strikers and police, bringing back painful memories of South Africa’s apartheid era.
The line between black and white may have blurred over the past 18 years of ANC leadership, but the line between haves and have-nots remains quite clear.
Appealing to African nationalism is an old trick for Zuma, but it can only lose its populist power as the years drag on. Already, his comments on canines have sparked a firestorm of criticism on social media, with many black South Africans posting photos of their own dogs and ridiculing the president’s statements.
Though Zuma can expect another presidential term, opposition parties are slowly closing the gap. The Democratic Alliance, or DA, is the ANC’s most serious political contender. It is rooted in the anti-apartheid movement and calls for a smaller government with less corruption, though it suffers from the perception that it caters mainly to privileged white and mixed-race citizens.
DA party leader Helen Zille has predicted that the ANC -- with Zuma’s help -- will fall apart within the decade, even though the next elections are in the bag.
“The ANC only has the race card left,” she said to Reuters in November. “That's all it has, and it's becoming less and less believable.”