A 15-year-old Cape Town boy has been suspended from school after refusing to trim his dreadlocks.
Equal Education, a non-governmental organisation that advocates for equality in the education system, is now threatening legal action over the matter, but the Western Cape department of education maintains that the matter rests with the school’s governing body.
Odwa Sityata, a practising Rastafarian, has been attending the Joe Slovo Engineering High School in Khayelitsha since the beginning of last year. At the end of January, the school asked him to cut off his dreadlocks as school regulations do not allow for them. He was told that he would not be allowed to attend school unless his hair was cut.
After unsuccessful discussions with the principal to explain that dreadlocks are part of the family’s religious customs, Sityata’s mother sought the help of Equal Education. Dmitri Holtzman, a spokesperson for the organisation, said Sityata’s mother had taken the matter to education department officials at various levels without success.
Following a disciplinary hearing late last month, the school governing body suspended Sityata for a week, from March 3 until March 10, and advised him to trim his dreadlocks. Equal Education has contested the suspension and asked that an exception be made for Sityata. “We’re not saying that schools can’t have a dress code, but there needs to be flexibility and an exception in the case of a genuine religious practice. Where this does not exist it amounts to discrimination [in terms of the Constitution],” said Holtzman.
Holtzman said Equal Education is dissatisfied that the education department had not intervened in the matter as it has a responsibility to ensure that public schools act in accordance with the law. The organisation said that if the matter is not resolved by the end of the week it may be forced to take urgent court action against the school and the department.
What the department of education says
According to the department, schools, not the department, decide on dress codes as part of their codes of conduct, which are subject to the Constitution. These codes can include hairstyles.
The department has stated that if Sityata continues to violate the school’s code of conduct, the school governing body has the right to pursue the matter further. However, it said that whatever happens, he will remain in school until such time as the matter is formally resolved.
Bronagh Casey, a spokesperson for Western Cape education minister Donald Grant, said that one could not assume that any constitutional right had been violated in this case. “There is no clear constitutional issue at stake, no previous case law has explicitly dealt with the issue of Rastafarianism — it has rather avoided this specific issue. In two previous cases, the courts ordered the children to return to school on administrative grounds.”
Casey said only the head of the education department, acting on the recommendation of the school governing body, has the right to expel a learner from school.
What the law says
Although there is no substantive case law that deals with Rastafarianism in schools, this is not the first time that school administrators have clashed with scholars who subscribe to the faith. Last year, the Navalsig High School in Bloemfontein expelled Lerato Motshabi over her dreadlocks. At the time, principal Jose Chittilapilly said that the school’s code of conduct did not allow dreadlocks, “not because it discriminates against any religion, but as a hairstyle.”
The matter reached the Equality Court but the school withdrew from the case before a ruling was made. It agreed to allow Motshabi back to school, to change its code of conduct to allow for religious and cultural practices, and to accept human rights training for staff and learners.
However, the South African Human Rights Commission’s advocate, Mothusi Lepheana — who acted for Motshabi — said the wearing of dreadlocks is a matter that crops up at the beginning of each school year. Lepheana said that just a few weeks ago he had to intervene at the primary school where Motshabi’s seven-year-old brother is enrolled to explain why the boy should be allowed to keep his dreadlocks.
“It’s a problem of dissemination of information from the department to the principals,” said Lepheana. “The department is very clear [on this issue] but when you go to schools, they have their own rules.”
Legal precedent at the Constitutional Court
Existing legal precedent allows for the expression of cultural and religious beliefs, which may conflict with school rules. In 2005, schoolgirl Sunali Pillay took the Durban Girls High School to court after the school forbade her from wearing a nose stud. The matter eventually escalated to the Constitutional Court and in 2007 and the court ruled in Pillay’s favour.
The court found that the school’s dress code “enforces mainstream and historically privileged forms of adornment [such as ear studs] at the expense of minority and historically excluded forms”.
In his judgement, former Chief Justice Pius Langa said the ruling did not abolish school uniforms but rather that “it only requires that, as a general rule, schools make exemptions for sincerely held religious and cultural beliefs and practices.”