South Africa, 22 years after shedding apartheid off its identity still has pockets of institutionalised prejudice and disdain for black South Africans. One upmarket former Model C school in South Africa has been swallowed by a racial storm for its prejudicially charged attacks on black hair and natural hairstyles. A picture of a girl crossing her fists in defiance to a white man has gone viral and the discussion has begun. Why are white people using their hair as a gold standard for what “tidy and professional hair” should be? Apartheid has found a more subtle expression and Pretoria Girls’ High has exposed this.
The Pretoria High School for Girls Constitution says, “All styles must be conservative, neat and keeping with a school uniform. No eccentric styles will be allowed.” This is the provision the school’s staff members have exploited to attack natural African hairstyles. One girl told the Gauteng provincial head of education, Panyaza Lesufi, “I have a natural Afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a bird’s nest.” She also said she had been told she looked like a sheep. Black learners are said to have been told to straighten their “untidy” hair and stop speaking in their native languages. One pupil was told to undo her “Bantu Knots” and get thinner dreadlocks. It is not just Pretoria High School but also Lawson Brown High School. The Citizen reports that some girls at Lawson Brown were “referred to as ‘peacocks’ for having afro hair”. Some teachers are said to have labelled natural African hair as being “disgusting and smelly. At this school, teachers have gone so far as to threaten to bar students with natural hair from writing their examinations. The school has however, said it will review its code of conduct but some students have said the administration is simply saving face.
A tip of the ice-berg
The hair debate has only brought attention to the institutionalised racism in some South African schools, particularly former Model C schools. These are former wholly white schools which should serve as epitomes of inclusiveness and not champions of white supremacy. Unfortunately, this is where students are being called monkeys and being told to stop making “funny noises” when they speak their own languages. In an OpEd for The Daily Vox, Malaika Eyoh, a Grade 12 student at Pretoria High School for Girls says, “Our schools undervalue blackness and focus more on containing us than nourishing us.”
It is at Model C schools that black young women are told they are not enough. They “worry too much about politics and that’s why they have no black achievers in education”. Others are being told they are monkeys in front of their classmates. It is a systematic undermining of the African identity and no one seems to be reprimanded for it. Outside school, the same young girls are exposed to Facebook posts by such people as Penny Sparrow who again call them monkeys. All this in the 21st century! It is not a wonder then that more and more young African women are resorting to bleaching and enhancing their body features to look more White. It is because they have been taught that only white is tidy enough, only white is professional enough. These are archaic values which should be set on the fires of history. In such schools where young white South Africans see teachers get away with calling black hair a bird’s nest, the young whites are also being taught they can be hateful without suffering any consequences for their actions. In their formative years, young people are being taught to sit pretty with racism in a so called “Rainbow nation”. Kudos to these young African women who have stood up for their rights and said no to racism clothed in a code of conduct.
The Education department in South Africa has said it will investigate and make sure culprits are brought to account. Young girls as young as 14 have protested against the institutionalised racism at Pretoria High School for Girls and Lawson Brown High School. It is bitter-sweet: on one hand, African ladies are now able to air their views with little fear but on the other hand, racism is still alive. Young black African women should never be told their natural features are inadequate. On what basis?