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What it takes to be African in South African Schools

Ophelia Milton

The end of August saw the rise of young schoolgirls protesting against discriminatory rules at Pretoria Girls High, demanding the eradication of racism in the secondary education sector (read more about it here). This brought forth a wave of national disillusionment in our schools, as students and alumni of other schools, such as Sans Souci and Parktown Girl’s, have realised many of the practises performed by teachers and members of faculty is simply not okay. The protests showed us even in contemporary society, the war against racism still rages on and unfortunately it is up to girls as young as 14 to fight it.

An example of a Code of Conduct for schools published by the Department of Education states there should be no colouring of hair or “exotic” hairstyles allowed in schools. Any additions to the school uniform which is not in regulation with its rules are prohibited. However, they do state when a child wishes to wear cultural attire such as a doek or headscarf, there should be a request in writing to the school stating why and when this deviation from the school uniform would be performed.

This promises to become a bureaucratic enslavement of sorts: where children have to ask permissions to conform to their cultural practises or norms. We can see in the case of Pretoria Girls High even wearing a doek on civvies day is seen as “unruly or undisciplined”. Now, what exactly does this mean for those who are African in South African schools?

Since grade 1 we are taught within the South African School system being a “well-disciplined and good” student means certain specific things. It means your hair has to be neat by their standards, you have to act according to their rules and regulation. You are allowed to be African only in accordance to their rules – but don’t forget to ask permission first.

“Even at my high school we were forced to straighten our hair, when I wore my natural, curly hair I was told I did not look neat or disciplined.”
– Melissa* a Coloured individual at Rhodes University.

We can even see students who are not Black are subjected to indirect racism by teachers and superiors. By telling a child what is natural and inherent to them is wrong, you are indirectly telling them THEY are wrong and they should conform to Western ideals in order to be considered “good or disciplined”.

“At my school, they would make us all stand in a line and then put swimming caps on our hair to make sure it wasn’t too big. There were teachers who justified this by saying we were in a Christian school and we should behave a certain way. But, what does that have to do with anything?”
– Thembi, a Rhodes student from Lesotho.

Contrary to popular belief this protest is not only about hair. It is about African people fighting to be African in Africa. The protest saw hundreds of black students chanting: “We are tired!” As a South African nation we are tired.

We are tired of going to school and hearing the natural state of our hair is not good enough and we should change it. We are tired of being told to “go back to our townships” when we are making a noise or speaking in our mother tongue. We are tired of having to conform to Western norms within the African context.

“We are tired!”


*Names of the sources have been changed to protect their identity.

Feature image courtesy of The Citizen

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