Hair Trends and Racism in South Africa

Opinion Piece by Lelouch Giard

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According to her elder sister, Zulaikha Patel has had to leave other schools because of her hair. Screen-grab: looptt.com

A girl called Zulaikha Patel has recently protested her way into headlines all over South Africa and has sparked a raucous nationwide argument. The alleged triggering incident was when she was told by a teacher at her school (Pretoria High School for Girls) to tidy up her hair. Now why is this such a big deal? You see, Patel claimed that the teacher was “being racist” and that the school’s code of conduct “discourages blackness and freedom of expression” – claims that allowed a hostile cloud of fellow students, parents, political party members and self-proclaimed activists and experts to coalesce around her unsubstantiated narrative.

Many students agreed. Many disagreed. Some people eagerly started arranging protect marches within the day on Sunday (for example, the EFFSC at the University of Pretoria). Parents who had never before seen fit to contact the school supported their children and pushed the matter on. Nebulous crowds formed on Twitter and other social media to collectively speak out in support of Patel (a “brave warrior”), or call her a spoiled, attention-seeking brat with a history of expulsions from various schools.

Why would Patel claim that her teacher was acting in a racist fashion? Her hair naturally grows in an afro – a style of hair most common among black individuals. This type of hair is difficult, if not near impossible, to comb through and it naturally grows in all directions, rather than easily manageable length. She claims that the school’s code of conduct does not allow black girls to wear their hair in the style of an afro and, thus, is oppressing blackness. Is this claim accurate?

The school’s code of conduct with regard to hair, which has been temporarily suspended by Gauteng education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, in response to the uproar, can be found here. The restrictions and regulations with regard to hair can be found on page 7: there is no mention of afros (banning or explicitly permitting them).

What the code of conduct does mention are (amongst others) braids: long braids must be tied back, like long hair of any other kind must be tied back; braids must be simple and not patterned (like any girl’s hair must be tied back conservatively); no beads or other decorations are allowed in braids (similar to bans on decorative clips and ornaments); braids must be the same colour as the girl’s natural hair (all girls aren’t allowed to dye their hair); braids must be kept out of the girl’s face (applies to all hairstyles) and braids must not exceed a certain width.

Many girls who attend the school have told me that they are, indeed, allowed to wear afros, as long as the afros are of reasonable size and well-kept. Clearly claims that the school is “forcing girls to straighten their hair” are unfounded, or at best overstated. Just like girls are not allowed to wear loose buns on top of their heads, there are restrictions to what is seen as “neat” in terms of afros as well.

Afros must be of a reasonable size and well-kept. Screen-grab: Instagram.com
Afros must be of a reasonable size and well-kept. Screen-grab: Instagram.com

I agree that the restrictions for other types and styles of hair are more clear, but there is nothing in the code of conduct stipulating that African girls are not allowed to wear their hair in natural afros. What should probably be done is to review and clarify the regulations with regard to the relevant hairstyles.

Not to be dissuaded by reality or the normal channels for such concerns, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the African Nation Congress (ANC) and many other political organisations and persons voiced their support for the girls at the school, going so far as to confront School Government Body members and (in the case of the Department of Education) address the SGB directly. Alumni of the school have also voiced their support, recounting previously untold tales of how they felt ugly and unworthy, even rejected, due to the type of hair they had. Some claim that they used shoe polish to hide their “brush cuts”.

Some accounts seem more believable than others, and all rely on unsubstantiated accounts. That aside, those tales have further stoked the race hate that has become synonymous with this incident already.

According to Patel’s elder sister, Zulaikha has had to leave other schools because of her hair. The question arises: is it really just because of her hair, or her attitude (possibly as relating to her hair)?

According to Patel’s guardian, she was doing a presentation on the inequality in South Africa, which was interrupted. She was, allegedly, taken to the head master and threatened with suspension if she did not “control her hair”. This account has been denied by several students at the school. I cannot help but wonder why the presentation would have been interrupted, rather than having addressed her appearance before it started. Was there possibly a different reason for interrupting her presentation, if it was interrupted at all?

Reliable accounts suggest that girls were not in fact asked to straighten their hair. They were not asked to relax their hair. They were not asked to cut their hair. They may have been asked to tidy up their appearance: something that other pupils are surely asked as well, irrespective of race. Yet the toxic narrative of racial biases and inequality that has sprouted from this tale will keep growing, as is the nature of cancers.

Some students of the school claim that they were banned from speaking their home languages to each other, in their own time, and that they were questioned when a group of two or more black girls were together. This is a very serious claim, I agree, and should be reviewed by the proper structures, to ascertain whether the claim is accurate, and if so, what should be done to rectify the situation.

As for wearing hair as a symbol of blackness… I understand being proud of your hair and wanting to wear it naturally. But one must also take good care of your hair, regardless. So, if the girl’s hair was truly unkempt on that day, why should the teacher not ask her to neaten her appearance? If a white girl wears her hair in such a way that it looks unkempt, a teacher would surely (and if not, should) do the same.

Next, wearing hair as a symbol of personal expression or individuality… If this is an issue, then all school rules should be abandoned: girls should be allowed to wear their hair down, they should be allowed to shave one side of their head, they should be allowed to dye their hair… If this is truly a problem, then it has absolutely nothing to do with race. A similar argument could be made that school uniforms are “oppressive” and “suppress freedom of expression”.

According to the principal of Meadowlands High School in Soweto, they do not allow braids at all at their school. He says that the girls and the parents know the school’s rules before they enrol, and he thus questions whether it is right to find fault with the school’s rules halfway through the school year. Personally, I find his opinion very reasonable. There are many schools in Pretoria; many of these schools are extremely prestigious. Parents and children are spoilt for choice (not even mentioning that they can affect change via the SGB if needed).

My issue with this incident is not the hair: the school’s code of conduct can be discussed and changed to specify the restrictions with regard to afros (and any other relevant hairstyles) more clearly. My issue is with how the situation has been handled: according to all accounts, no formal complaint was made before the girls of the school took to protesting. There are channels available to lay complaints and for the parties to enter into discussion. Instead, these girls simply protested.

Protest is meant to be a last resort, when all other options have failed. It is not the first thing you try. Protest is a statement: protest signifies that all negotiation and discussion has been attempted and has broken down. That this issue was not brought to the SGB by students or concerned parents makes the protest action hypocritical; little more than a public tantrum.

Nelson Mandela’s “super power” was getting two parties to talk, discuss, and finally understand each other’s points of view. That is why we had a peaceful transition; part of why he is revered as an excellent statesman. Why should we resort to force when we have, available to us, this peaceful first option, and such a good example of how to use it?

I would like to leave you with this thought: when we abuse the “Race Card”, as has been done in this case and is often done be the ANC and EFF, the word loses some of its meaning. When there is no real racism to combat, calling racism is like causing an auto-immune disease: all it does is make the different parts of our nation fight each other over some imagined or exaggerated slight.

Visit A Vigilant Voice for more articles by Lelouch Giard

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