School dreadlocks ban is tested in court

An unprecedented case before the Equality Court involving the right to wear dreadlocks has put school codes of conduct under the spotlight.

Grade 10 pupil Lerato Motshabi, who attends Navalsig High School in the Free State, was expelled in September 2009 because of her hairstyle, even after her father, Lazarus Louw, complied with a request from the principal, Jose Chittilapilly, to explain why she should be allowed to retain her dreadlocks.

Louw took the matter to the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Following the HRC’s subsequent appeal to the school, Motshabi was permitted to return, but she and her father felt that the issue was still unresolved.

HRC advocate Mothusi Lepheana, who represents the family, told the Mail & Guardian: “The first request was to get the child back to school so that her right to education is not violated. That we have achieved.” The second issue, he said, was to redress “the humiliation”.

In March this year the HRC served papers on the school, asking Navalsig authorities to pay R10 000 in compensation and to publish an “unconditional written apology” in a national newspaper.

“We cannot order them to do this. That’s why we are taking them to court,” Lepheana said.

Motshabi, who started growing her dreadlocks in 2002, said that Chittilapilly had interviewed her when she applied for a place at Navalsig. “I was at the school for two years before they asked me anything about my hairstyle,” she said.

In her affidavit before the Equality Court, Motshabi says: “Chittilapilly asked me why it was so difficult for me to remove my dreadlocks and use artificial hair like other learners.”

She adds: “I feel humiliated, degraded and discriminated against because of my religion … It is my wish that our school can be tolerant of other religions such as the Rastafarians and remove all rules and regulations that perpetuate stereotypes.”

In his affidavit, Louw, who is also a Rastafarian, refers to a section in the school’s code of conduct that bans “dreadlocks or strange cuts or silly lines or patterns in hair”. This, he says, is “very insensitive and discriminates against African people, particularly those who practise the Rastafarian religion”.

His affidavit continues: “Chittilapilly violated the right of my child to education as enshrined in section 29 of the Constitution and unlawfully and intentionally humiliated and discriminated against my daughter on the basis of her religion, conscience and belief. Historically, dreadlocks have always been rejected and disliked for no other reason except for their African heritage and Rastafarian affiliation.”

Chittilapilly refused to comment on the issue, saying the case was sub judice. The chairperson of the school’s governing body, Kabelo Wolss, said: “We are still discussing the matter internally, and we cannot give comment at this stage.”

Lepheana believes that schools and organisations like the HRC share common ground because both work for human rights.

“Our [role] is to protect and promote, theirs is to deliver the rights,” he said.

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