Black pupils schooled in dread

Not irie: A Richards Bay school stands accused of summarily changing its code of conduct to ban the wearing of dreadlocks, and intimidating pupils who contest the 'racist' rule. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Not irie: A Richards Bay school stands accused of summarily changing its code of conduct to ban the wearing of dreadlocks, and intimidating pupils who contest the 'racist' rule. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Parents, pupils and teachers at a KwaZulu-Natal school are accusing it of racism after the school allegedly changed its policy to allow it to ban black pupils from having dreadlocks. They also complained of racial slurs about black schoolchildren.

Two pupils told the Mail & Guardian that they and others were asked to remove their dreadlocks because they “smell bad”. Teachers who spoke to the newspaper also say those who speak out are threatened and intimidated.

“Two weeks ago, my teacher called me up to the front of the class and told me I’m not allowed to have dreadlocks,” a matric pupil at John Ross College, a former model C school in Richards Bay, about two hours’ drive north of Durban, told the M&G.

The pupil and the teacher looked at the school’s code of conduct, “which said nothing about dreadlocks and never has”, she said.
“Later, I was called to the office, where she gave me a new code of conduct. I saw there that they had added that dreadlocks were not allowed. It was still hot, like it had just been printed.”

The pupil refused to remove her dreadlocks because “this had never been in the school rules and my dreadlocks are always plaited or tied up. It’s a racist attack,” she said.

The pupil’s mother told the M&G that when she registered her daughter at the school she “made a point of going through the code of conduct to see that we weren’t offending the school by any means”.

“My daughter’s hair has always been neat,” she said.

The code of conduct on the school’s website says: “Hair in eyes and/or touching collar must be tied/clipped up or cut. No hair extensions are allowed.”

But the M&G has seen what is said to be a copy of the new code of conduct. The section on girls’ uniform rules now includes the clause “nor are dreadlocks allowed”.

The pupil’s mother said the school had not informed her that it planned to change the code of conduct.

The South African Schools Act says,  subject to any applicable provincial law, “a governing body … must adopt a code of conduct for the learners after consultation with the learners, parents and educators of the school”.

The M&G spoke to two teachers, two parents and another pupil, who all asked to remain anonymous for fear of being victimised.

A second mother said her daughter came home crying a few weeks ago “because the principal told her: ‘We will suspend you if you don’t cut your dreadlocks.’ She humiliated her and told her that some of the pupils had complained that dreadlocks smell bad,” she said.

“We are part of the Shembe church. We are not allowed to cut our hair. I told them that when I registered my daughter.”

The mother also said she had not been told of any plan to change the code of conduct. She said she went to the school to make an appointment to talk about the problem and “still today I haven’t heard anything back”.

Eighty percent of John Ross College’s 1 100-odd pupils are black, 15% are Indian and 5% are white, according to the teachers the M&G spoke to.

They said the school’s management team is made up of two white staff, one of whom is the principal, and three Indian and two coloured staff members.

The school management team was asked about the alleged new policy. It referred the M&G to a response written by school governing body chairperson SM Mbatha.

He said the allegations “provided in your recent communication with the principal of John Ross College are of grave concern and of a very serious nature. As the [school governing body] of John Ross College, [we] are shocked to hear of such allegations.

“We stand for integrity, honesty and absolute clarity in our role as governors of John Ross College and want to thoroughly investigate this

matter before forwarding any formal press release.

“We trust you understand our role: as governors we are elected custodians of the school’s governance procedures. We do also understand your role with regards to responsible press reporting,” Mbatha said.

“In this matter we will provide you with a press release once we have investigated these serious allegations to the fullest.”

Another teacher said there is a “very sophisticated type of racism here against black teachers. They won’t call you a kaffir, but they make you know your place.”

Pupils are “regularly called monkeys and baboons”, one said, and a grade eight class was told this year that the apartheid government said black people were stupid and “you are proof that they were right’ ”.

The pupil said teachers had also cut off several pupils’ iziphandla (animal-skin bracelets).

“This is a sacred thing in the Zulu culture and it’s an insult for a person of another culture to just come and cut it,” she said.

This is not the first time that black pupils’ hair has become a battleground for allegations of racism in South African schools.

Last year, a Gauteng principal was reportedly dismissed for forcing black pupils to wash their “greasy” hair with dishwashing liquid in the school bathrooms.

An attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre, Lisa Draga, said principals and school governing bodies “do not enjoy free rein under the law and cannot simply adopt a willy-nilly approach when it comes to the crafting and implementation of dress codes.

“The national guidelines on school uniforms allow learners to be exempted in cases of religious and cultural beliefs.”

The John Ross College teachers said past attempts to raise issues of racism constructively with management were “shut down”.

Teachers are also reluctant to approach the KwaZulu-Natal education department because “it’s very difficult to know who you can trust”, said one. “It’s happened before, where teachers have been victimised for approaching government officials. But we can’t keep silent about this any longer, so that is why we took the big step to go to the media.”

KwaZulu-Natal education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said he would ask the district director to attend to the matter.

“Racism has no place in the new South Africa … We will definitely prioritise this matter.”

He said if teachers were not comfortable with a district director’s ability to address their concerns, “then they can report the matter to the head of department”.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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