Battle of the dreads rages on

Navalsig High School in Bloemfontein has asked the Equality Court to throw out a controversial case involving a learner’s right to wear dreadlocks.

The case, expected to be heard in August, has placed school codes of conduct in the spotlight.

The Mail & Guardian reported on May 28 that when Rastafarian grade 10 pupil Lerato Motshabi was expelled from Navalsig because of her dreadlocks, her father took the matter to the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

After the HRC’s intervention, Motshabi was allowed to return, but she and her father felt that the issue was unresolved.
In March this year the HRC served papers asking the school authorities to pay R10 000 in compensation and publish an “unconditional written apology” in a national newspaper.

In his answering affidavit, Navalsig principal Jose Chittilapilly denied expelling Motshabi. “I instructed the learner to remove her dreadlocks as the parents did not respond to any requests,” he said.

Chittilapilly claimed that Navalsig had “accommodated learners from various religions or groupings … and engaged with those learners and parents to accommodate their needs within the rules of the school.

“The code of conduct does not allow dreadlocks, not because it discriminates against any religion, but as a hairstyle.”

Motshabi started growing her dreadlocks in 2002 and told the M&G in May that she had been a learner at the school for two years before any objection was raised.

Her father, Lazarus Louw, who is also Rastafarian, said Chittilapilly violated “the right of my child to education as enshrined in Section 29 of the Constitution”. Louw’s affidavit further claimed that Chittilapilly “unlawfully and intentionally humiliated and discriminated against [Motshabi] on the basis of her religion, conscience and belief”.

In his answering affidavit, Chittilapilly said: “I respect the Constitution and acknowledge that every learner has a right to education.” He continued: “African culture is a rich culture and I am aware that all racial groups wear dreadlocks for various reasons and not only for religious purposes.”

Chittilapilly claimed Motshabi’s family “signed the admission documents and thereby accepted the rules of the school”. He asked the court to give the school governing body “an opportunity to exercise its statutory duty with reasonable care within the ambit of our Constitution”.

He said the family “never applied to the [school governing body] for exemption from any rule”. In his earlier affidavit Louw disputed this claim.

Approached by the M&G, Chittilapilly declined to comment on the case. “You can speak to the lawyers,” he said.

Jaco Deacon, Chittilapilly’s attorney, said: “We’d like the court to request the learner and the parent to submit a letter of application to the [school governing board] for exemption from the rule. The [board] never made a decision for exemption.”

He said it would “put the school’s rules in jeopardy” if exemption happened automatically.

Deacon said this solution would “benefit both parties”.

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