Can policing hair relate to community and equality, or is it solely a function of colonial militarism?
It was a day when black students at Pretoria Girls High School were finally holding their school to account for racism. Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi came to see them and so did the freshly elected mayor of Tshwane, Solly Msimanga. But still, the pupils were the real leaders.
They were just a small group of protesters who moved up and down the road of the school during their break period. Break usually ends at 11am, but on Monday the bell rang 20 minutes before it normally does.
“They’re ringing it because they’re afraid,” a student said.
After protesting over the weekend against the school’s code of conduct, which instructs them to chemically straighten their hair, the girls held their posters high on Monday and many of them defiantly kept their hair natural. When the bell rang, some of the protesters made their way back to class, but a few of the students joined Lesufi for a meeting.
As they walked behind Lesufi, the pupils raised their fists in the air, saying the “time has come” and “it’s been long enough”, in reference to how long they had been fighting against racism at the school. Lesufi walked in front of the group and behind his head the fists of the young girls rose.
When they settled down into the meeting, listening as Lesufi told them that burning property and dirupting the school would be a deal-breaker in any negotiation, the students became vulnerable.
A student detailed how a teacher had told her to tie her dreadlocks in a way that would fit into the school’s view of tidyness. The student says she tried to explain that her dreadlocks were too heavy and cut into different lengths so a hairband would not work. Her teacher put her in front of a mirror after class and told her to fix it, the student said.
“She instructed me to fix myself as if I was broken,” a student told Lesufi.
“My hair is natural and connected to my roots. They are not braids, they are roots.”
Lesufi listened, along with the school’s principal, as the students stood up and spoke. A 17-year-old Grade 11 pupil said the “perpetrators still teach us” at the school and said both students and teachers had been racist towards her and her peers, to the point where they could not even hang out together in large groups on school property.
“The school was put on high alert to disperse any groups that have four or more black pupils,” she said.
Lesufi said he would meet with the students first before meeting with the school’s management. He would make a decision on how to proceed after he had heard from both groups, but apologised to the girls for the treatment they had endured.
“You feeling unwelcome in your own school ends here. You have my support and I will protect you, whatever it takes. Just remain cool,” Lesufi said.
Language was also tightly regulated in the school, with one student saying she had been threatened for speaking isiXhosa with a friend. The school, students say, has little tolerance for black South African languages.
Lesufi is meeting with the school’s principal and other stakeholders to address what the girls are facing, but has already hinted that, given the statements he had heard, consequences would follow for those who are accountable.
“This school belongs to all of us. If someone needs to pack their goods and leave this school, then they will have to,” the MEC said.
The students say that they have raised complaints about the institutional culture and racism at the school in the past, but they have been told that their focus on race and politics is the reason why there is no black student among the top 10 achievers. When Lesufi asked a student what that meant, she answered: “I think it means we are not smart.”
But it is not what they believe. In previous encounters with their teachers, the students have told of how they have had the smarts to clap back when they have experienced discrimination. In one instance, a teacher told a pupil that her afro was too high and that it had gone past the limit.
“I asked her: ‘what limit is that?’,” the pupil said.
Msimanga, as well as a student political group in university, have spoken out against the school in solidarity with the students. Lesufi will continue to hold meetings before a decision is made on how to proceed.