Pretoria Girls High School pupil: I was instructed to fix myself as if I was broken

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Matrics fail at critical subjects

The basic education minister talks of quality passes achieved by the class of 2020, but a closer look at the results tells a different story

‘Captured’ water utility exec holes up

Thami Hlongwa seems to be in hiding after a blacklisted technology company scored millions from Umgeni Water and the owner was murdered

More top stories

Sisulu dissolves housing agency board, again

The HDA is once again under administration, and its acting chief executive gets to stay on

Pangolins pushed to the brink of extinction

The trafficking of scales is no longer a ‘niche’ criminal activity, but a serious and organised crime that threatens to make all eight species extinct within 20 years

Durban residents want answers after refinery emission

People living near the refinery were subjected to two hours of dirty smoke from the refinery, the South Durban Environmental Alliance said on Saturday.

Parents ‘key to best grade 12 results’

For the past four years, the matric results in Tshwane South has been the leading district in Gauteng. The formula to success has been involving the parents
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…