Neat hair at school is a colonial mess

The class of 2022 have laced up their new shoes and walked through the gates of their schools, crisp shirts and bulky blazers donned, sporting neat new haircuts. As events in recent years have demonstrated at Cornwall Hill College and St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls, existing ideas about dress codes and hair policies are not beyond challenge. These policies have particular histories tied to British militarism, rigid class systems and colonial civilising missions. Perhaps it is time we recognise these issues and consider the value and history of these policies for our society.  

South Africa inherited an education policy designed to prepare boys for military roles in an imperial setting as part of “the white man’s burden” and to prepare girls for a life of dutiful service to husbands, families and communities. 

Since 1994, the substance of the curriculum may have changed, but the structures supporting that colonial mission have largely escaped challenge. 

These structures were developed during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, where British education and military policy coincided with heavy influence on duty and discipline to prepare children for military and imperial service. This militarised education persisted in order to provide British subjects with some of the basics of military life to facilitate rapid training in the event of war.

Unlike Britain’s Great Power rivals, the British Army was comparatively small. On the eve of World War I, France and Germany had armies in the region of one million men, whereas the British had around 100 000, because Britain did not have a conscript army. British Imperial war policy for most of the 19th and 20th century was centred on the Royal Navy.  When land wars were fought, such as the Crimean War and the South African War, the army was hurriedly expanded and deployed. The professionally trained soldiers of the army were designed to hold their ground in any war until a larger force drawn from colonial manpower could be trained and mobilised. Around half of the entire adult population of the UK had some form of military training through the education and supplementary paramilitary systems, such as the Scouts. 

As with just about every English structural invention, rigid class ideology was a prominent feature. School uniforms originating in England were specifically designed to draw attention to the lower-class status of the students and to instil in them a sense of obedience to a higher and rightful authority. The quality of the material and style of dress were immediate signifiers of the child’s social standing. Rough, scratchy blazers for the working class, top hats and tails for the aristocracy. Children were expected, under pain of corporal punishment, to stay in their uniforms even when off school grounds to ensure they remembered their place. This is still the case today, with children in uniform obeying the authority of individual adult teachers. 

Colonial education was further intended to “civilise” colonised peoples. Strict discipline was used to literally beat colonial beliefs into children, and beat out “uncivilised” languages and customs. Recent discoveries of mass graves at “indigenous schools” in North America give a small glimpse into the extent of this colonial violence and cultural genocide. The expressed aim in many colonial education settings was to turn the natives into compliant subjects of the Empire and adopt British modes and customs. 

Natural hair was a particular affront to the civilising mission, constituting a visible resistance to Eurocentric indoctrination. That such views are still codified in schools today is shocking. 

The focus on “neat” hair is part of the logic of military discipline and colonial notions of “civilisation”. Neatness is a social construct, but more than that it was constructed for the specific purposes of turning indigenous peoples into pliant colonial subjects who will follow orders. Neatness for the military has more to do with the spread of lice in confined quarters of a foxhole than any aesthetic value.

This fusion of military, education and colonial policy was continued by the apartheid government, but instead of sending off young men to die in Europe or North Africa, they were to be sent to die in Angola and Namibia. The colonial British model of education is particularly useful for a militarised government and society. 

Heavy emphasis on duty and discipline are largely irrelevant to academic development. Whether or not hair touches a collar, hangs over the ears or does not conform to Eurocentric conceptions of neatness has no bearing on academic ability. The intended dual effect is to first enforce colonial ideals of what it is to be civilised, and second, to ensure that the youth are conditioned to follow orders, no matter how seemingly arbitrary.  

This is of course to say nothing about the heavily gendered interpretations of neatness and dress. Dress and hair codes quickly establish gender norms — boys have short hair, girls have long hair — that school children are expected to uphold. Whether or not our society should continue to enforce such norms is a debate worthy of much more discussion. 

Nonetheless, there are arguments in favour of uniforms, in particular their role in promoting a sense of community and equality. This would be in keeping with the motto of “diverse peoples unite”, where uniforms and dress codes can aid in bringing groups together, disrupting attempts at othering those who are different. The first mission of both public and private schools is to prepare children to be citizens and workers in society. South African society in the 21st century is not one hobbled by rigid class systems nor heavily militarised for continuous colonial warfare. 

The equality argument is somewhat undermined by the hierarchies of different badges, braids, blazers and ties, continuing some of that Victorian militarism. Community and equality are perhaps better values for our society as we hurtle through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, rather than the anachronistic values of duty and discipline. 

If these are the values we wish to instil in our society then let us be frank about it, weigh uniform and “neatness” policies against them, and disavow the colonial and imperial legacies of militarism. 

For instance, how does policing hair relate to community and equality, or is it solely a function of colonial militarism? For South Africa’s youth to succeed in the future as citizens and workers, Victorian era values of duty and obedience are likely not as useful as critical thinking and a sense of community. 

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Simon Taylor
Dr Simon Taylor formerly worked for South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation, and holds a MSocSci from the University of Cape Town and a PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland

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