Hairgate: We must look at language too to get to the root of the problem

What is happening at Pretoria High School for Girls routinely takes place across the country in our schools, and it is a human rights violation of the country’s majority by a minority.

Those rights (cultural, linguistic and religious) are enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution. Chapter two, section 30 of the Bill of Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.”

I am a researcher, born, bred and schooled in and around Pretoria.

Throughout my generation’s schooling under apartheid, we were forced to learn Afrikaans as a third language because our mother tongue, Setswana in my case, was our first language.

Our second language was English and only then came Afrikaans. That scenario remains unchanged under post-apartheid governance.


Consequently, my own work and activism has been in the areas of African-centred education, African studies and curricula, and language-in-education policy in Africa (focussing on South Africa because of the country’s legacy of colonialism and apartheid rule).

This has been my preoccupation for the past 16 years and the research findings from fieldwork I have conducted in Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal and Nigeria was enlightening.

First, within the scope of culture and languages, the former colonisers do not believe that we have a culture that is carried through African languages worthy of respecting, dignifying and studying.

In addition, we, the African majority with an African ruling party for the past 22 years, believe our colonisers about what they have dictated about our African languages and African cultures.

But as with the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and the myriad other Fallist movements, our black (African, Indian and coloured) students and children are telling us it will not happen on their watch.

As we have done with our university students, we must support the courage of these black girls at this high school. They make a point about our humanness: for them to be accepted, they do not have to mimic their white peers.

For these girls and many others, to be African and black is to be beautiful.

What we should not leave unaddressed about the racism row over the hair policy at Pretoria High School for Girls is what this implies about our national projects of reconciliation and nationbuilding.

What does it mean when, wherever an African or black person works, studies and is employed, we continue to speak the languages of those who are a minority?

As we celebrate the life – and continue to mourn the death – of Bantu Steve Biko this month, it is no coincidence that, on September 9, Angela Davis, an African-American activist of the black power and civil rights movement in the United States, will be in Pretoria. She will be delivering the 17th annual Steve Biko memorial lecture, co-hosted by the Biko Foundation and Unisa.

Davis is a force who is primarily remembered for her hair, the famous Afro, that she kept and wore proudly in the 1960s and 1970s – it became a powerful symbol of blackness and black identity.

She is professor emerita in the history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Listening to India.Arie’s song I Am Not My Hair and Fela Kuti’s Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense are poignant reminders of the politics of education and hair.

Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi is a senior researcher in the monitoring and evaluation directorate at the Council on Higher Education. He is also a postdoctoral fellow who is writing a book titled A Culture History of Robben Island: Izingoma Zo Mzabalazo Esiqithini (Struggle Songs of the Island). These are his personal views

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Neo Lekgotla Ramoupi
Neo Lekgotla
Senior Lecturer: History Wits University School of Education & Post - Doctoral Fellow: 2016-2017

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