Pupils from Lawson Brown High School in Port Elizabeth brought the school to a standstill on Tuesday when they protested over alleged racist verbal attacks concerning black authentic hair.
The picket protest broke out on the streets in front of the school while learners were joined in solidarity with members from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who picketed in song and dance.
Chaos later erupted in the school corridors with students and EFF members disrupting classes, while the school principal, Donovan Cairncross, addressed a group of angry community members and parents in his office. Cairncross refused to let the media sit in on the discussion.
Students were angry with teachers who allegedly claimed that afro hair was “uncontrollable” and learners with afro or braided hair would not be allowed to write their CAT examinations starting this week.
A Grade 12 learner, who may not be identified as he is still a minor, said students tried to engage with school management last week but it ended up with teachers trying to “fix” the hair of his friend, a girl.
The boy said that he was instructed by teachers to remove a complaint he had made on a Facebook post. He said that he was trying to create awareness on the matter but teachers insisted on undermining his credibility.
Speaking to the African News Agency (ANA), the friend said she was called out of an assembly last week to go and see a teacher to discuss the hair of black learners.
She said she did not understand why teachers would discriminate against a black learner wearing a bun and say nothing to a white learner wearing a bun.
“A bun is a bun, but they have a problem with a black student wearing a bun. What is the difference?” she asked.
She went on to ask the teacher “what is wrong with my hair, is it the hairstyle or the texture?” but did not get a straight answer.
“All she said was ‘try to tie up your hair, try to comb it back, try to tie it into a ponytail’. I said ‘no I can’t do that with an afro’, then she told me to relax my hair of which I said ‘no, I am not willing to put chemicals on my head’,” she added.
She said the teacher then pulled her hair in attempt to make a ponytail.
She said she was made to feel undermined regarding her own identity as a black female and requested she speak to another teacher who could possibly relate.
“It’s like you are undermining my solutions on my own identity, so I’m trying to tell you [teacher] that you don’t know much about my hair, I’m not undermining your authority but I’m giving you a solution. You don’t know much about this type of hair so let’s ask someone who knows so we can get through this and reach a common ground, but then she just walked away,” she said.
She said that she believed certain teachers had an attitude towards afro and they needed to “fix themselves” instead of undermining her blackness.
Other girls were emotional when they recalled being referred to as “peacocks” for having afro hair. Students said some teachers labelled their hair as “disgusting and smelly”.
Learners said the school had created an issue around black hair for as long as they could remember but students became defiant and spoke out when warned they would not be able to write their Grade 12 examinations with their afros or braids.
Angry community member, Mozibele Qamngana said the issue was not only about hair but also included victimisation.
“They are being told to go back into the township, it should not happen. The fact we are only focusing on the hair, that’s only a niche. The fact that they are being vicitimised by the staff that is an issue that needs to be addressed. They are being victimised because they are black,” said Qamngana.
Pupils later gathered in the school hall to be addressed by the Department of Education and Cairncross.
Department of Education Acting District Director George Lukwe commended learners for raising their concerns regarding school policy on afro hair.
Lukwe said that every learner would be able to write examinations and no learner would be turned away based on an afro or braided hairstyle.
“We take responsibility as a department to say we want to apologise. I want to humbly appeal to learners and parents to give us a chance. When we speak as department we speak on behalf of all,” he told disgruntled pupils.
The pupils did not back down and went on to demand an apology from the school head who then finally expressed regret.
“We have realised and I acknowledge that we have hurt many children. We need to rectify that and as from today [Tuesday] the clauses relating to the hair and claims that we are anti-black and claims that we are racist, those clauses will be reviewed from the code of conduct. We will sit down as the staff and we will call in The Department Of Education, then we will re-establish what is correct in terms of belonging to Lawson Brown,” said Cairncross.
By mid morning school children were sent home, but many still loitered outside the school gates and said they did not accept the principal’s apology as sincere.
They said because the spotlight had turned onto the school he was merely “saving face”.