The Policing of Black Hair in Our Schools: Policy or Prejudice?


-by Bhavna Ramji and Tim Fish Hodgson

In August 2016, Black learners at Pretoria High School for Girls organised a protest against school authorities preventing them from wearing their hair in Afros.

Public discussion on the topic has been heated, and in some cases, entirely misinformed.

Radio host John Robbie, for example, took it upon himself to give a learner a lecture on the importance of “rules”, all the while offensively ignoring and condescending to her patient explanations of the lived experiences of girls at the school. Others have questioned whether Afros may prevent other children from seeing the blackboard. Little, if anything has been said about the content of the school’s rules, education policy and national law, which in fact vindicate the girls.

What is the basis of the girls’ complaints?

The girls’ major complaint is that school policy on “hairstyles” was being misused to prevent Black, and particularly African, learners from wearing their hair in Afros, bantu knots, dreadlocks, and corn rows.

Natural hairstyles came under attack by the school’s almost entirely white staff body in many ways, ranging from threats to learners’ education to crude insults and racial slurs:  Black learners at the school had been told they would not be able to write exams if they didn’t “fix” their hair, that “[your hair] looks like a bird’s nest”, that “[your dreadlocks are] dirty old braids”.

In one case, two teachers referred to a learner as having “k****r hair”, which, alone should be grounds for the teachers’ dismissal. The Eastern Cape High Court, Mthatha, has recently concluded that the k-word itself is “an inescapably racial slur which is disparaging, derogatory and contemptuous of the person of whom it is used or to whom it is directed” and therefore constitutes hate speech. It directed the utterer of this word to pay the victim R100 000 in damages.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these stories is how unremarkable they remain a full 20 years after the adoption of South Africa’s Constitution and a legal framework which seeks to prohibit and ultimately eradicate racism. They endure too, not only in majority white schools, but also in schooling environments where significant proportions of children are Black.

Empowered by the bravery of the girls of Pretoria High School for Girls, a growing number of Black learners in former white private and public schools across the country have since openly challenged the discrimination that they face at their schools. Past pupils from these schools have also confirmed their similar experiences.

What has, however, surprisingly, often escaped scrutiny in the present debate is the apparent claim that Black learners are merely victims of backward school policies. The issue is not that simple, and, we suggest, has its ultimate roots in the insidious racism that still simmers on the surface of public discourse throughout South Africa.

Policy or Prejudice?

In many cases, learners experiencing this kind of treatment are not dealing with obsolete or racist policy. Instead they are the victims of racist micro-aggressions perpetrated by majority white teachers who continue to dominate school authority structures.

Pretoria High School for Girls is a case in point.

Contrary to one widespread public perception, the uniform policy of Pretoria High School for Girls does not in fact prevent learners from wearing Afros. Despite being a very specific document which regulates the minutiae of learners’ conduct including “shoelaces must be tied firmly with a bow” and “no crocodile, banana or other fancy clips are allowed”  the rules say nothing at all about Afros, bantu knots, dreadlocks or corn rows.

The rules simply require that “all hair must be brushed” and that “all styles should be conservative, neat and in keeping with the school uniform”.   These standards must also be understood in the context of the schools core values spelled out in the code of conduct which include “Ubuntu” and “equality and inclusivity”, which presumably suggests an interpretation of the rules that protects diverse bodies and appearances, particular ones that are markedly African.

The rules should also be interpreted through the lens of the Department of Basic Education’s Guidelines for School Codes of Conduct, which indicate that learners rights to  “to seek, hear, read and wear” and “is extended to forms of outward expression, as seen in clothing selection and hairstyles”.  The characterisation in some responses, including that of John Robbie, of the girls as “anti-rules” is therefore ironic, as it is in fact the teachers and school management who are blatantly transgressing law and policy.

Assuming school authorities, including teachers and governing bodies, understand this and are familiar with their own schools’ codes of conduct, then obsolete racist policy does not actually explain what is happening at our schools.  The source of the problems is in fact teachers’ transgressions of the existing legal and policy frameworks, which are manifestly anti-racist.

If there is any racism in policing of learners’ dress there are many cases in which it is not as a result of school rules, government guidelines or the law. Rather these practices are often  introduced by schools and their – often majority white – staff.

A new problem or an endemic practice?

The problems that have come to light recently are also not new.  What has been characterised as a recent spurt of schools imposing anti-Black norms and standards is merely a continuation of well documented racist school practices in our schools that have found their way to our courts since 1994.

In 2000 a Western Cape school girl took the school to court for refusing to allow her to wear dreadlocks.  She came from a practising Rastafari family.  In 2005, a Durban learner, who was from a Hindu family found herself in the Constitutional Court protecting her right to wear a nose-stud to school. These learners were successful in both instances with courts finding clear violations of the children’s religious freedoms.

More recently, a Gauteng learner wore a goatskin bracelet or isiphandla given to him in a religious ritual for protection. It was confiscated by his teacher. At another school in Gauteng, a principal cut from the learner’s neck a string of red and white beads worn by a learner mourning the death of his grandmother. The teacher then punished the learner by directing him to fetch a broom to sweep up the beads.

Finally, two siblings were removed from a high school in the Western Cape, for wearing a hijab and fez respectively. Similar incidents have also been reported in a Free State school and most recently at Herschel, a private girls school in Cape Town. Muslim boys have also been asked to shave beards that they have grown as signs of faith or advancement within the faith.

Many of these cases are direct violations of the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) National Guidelines on School Uniform which allow the growing of beards and wearing of headscarves for religious purposes.

It is therefore unsurprising that in many of these instances, provincial departments and courts have rightly supported the learners against the schools by protecting learners’ rights where their religious or cultural practices or expressions were being threatened.  The courts too have largely protected learners’ by constructing from explicit constitutional rights and values – including equality, diversity, freedom of association, and cultural and religious freedoms – a “right to be different”, which may be exercised where learners hold a “sincerely held belief” in a particular religious and cultural practice.

It is true that unlike the Pretoria High girls, these children were all claiming the right to wear clothes and hair of cultural or religious significance. But what is also clear is that all of these cases have something glaringly in common with the situations of girls at Pretoria High. Every single case deals with school policing of the appearances of Black learners who do not conform to white or Western understandings of beauty, neatness and decency.

The recent spate of complaints about racist policing of appearance in our schools forces us to reconsider whether these cases, in addition to violations of religious and cultural rights, were in fact also manifestations of racism.

Race matters: the politics of difference

Malaika Eyoh, a grade 12 learner at Pretoria Girls High powerfully expresses that she and others at Pretoria High have experienced the school’s treatment as racism:

[W]e understand now, more than ever that the experiences written on our skin and twisted into our hair are valuable and unique and it doesn’t matter whether others want to acknowledge them. We know we matter. Race matters.”  

This represents a massive leap from the learners in past cases, because the explicit framing of these complaints, expresses a clear race consciousness. Learners throughout the country are rejecting a fundamental aspect of their treatment in formerly white schools: the essentialism that characterises many of these schools insipid race politics.

It is likely that the law will, once again, be on the side of the learners.

First, courts have increasingly recognised that neutrality in dress codes is a myth and that restrictions often have political undertones.  For example, late Chief Justice Pius Langa found that a ban on nose-studs “enforces mainstream and historically privileged forms of adornment, such as ear-studs which also involve the piercing of a body part, at the expense of minority and historically excluded forms”.

Second, the test developed by the Constitutional Court to allow certain modes of dress is simply whether or not a learner has a sincerely held belief in a particular expression. The protection afforded to religious and cultural expression should be extended to other forms of political expression including the expression of racial identity. The Department’s Guidelines are already sufficiently broad to allow for this.

Third, the failure to protect learners’ political views, or learners who simply want to be comfortable in their Black bodies, while protecting their religious or culturally astute counterparts is at odds with a Constitution which grants everyone equal protection before the law.

It must be noted that this approach itself is not without its major problems. Black children should not have to claim a “right to be different”, merely to exist equally in a supposedly pluralistic school environment in a country which is nearly 90% Black. The right to be different inadvertently takes “whiteness” and “Christianity” as norms just as the apartheid’s systems of Christian National Education and Bantu Education did.

For now, however, although law and policy reflects unequivocally that enforcing uniformity can no longer be regarded as a legitimate public school pursuit and must give way to diversity, former white schools have been unable to imagine a world outside bobs and ponytails.

This is likely exacerbated because these schools remain almost entirely white in staff composition. While this has been the case, school staff acting alone have shown that they cannot or will not uphold the spirit of post-Apartheid law and policy. There are also cases in which majority white SGBs at prominent schools, without meaningful engagement with learners and parents, have produced rules that violate the DBE’s guidelines and the Constitution.

As important as it is, even more than Black children’s comfort in their own appearance and expression is at stake.

As bell hooks reminds us, it is the same predominantly white staff members that reinterpret anti-racist polices to police Black learners’ bodies who are tasked with educating our children:

“That shift from beloved, all-black schools to white schools where black students were always seen as interlopers, as not really belonging, taught me the difference between education as the practice of freedom and education that merely strives to reinforce domination. The rare white teacher who dared to resist, who would not allow racist biases to determine how we were taught, sustained the belief that learning at its most powerful could indeed liberate.”

In the short term, learners who have had enough of racist micro-aggressions will continue to turn to innovative forms of protest or rely on the protection of courts and provincial departments of education.

The medium-term project, at least pending an increase in the number of Black and racially conscientised staff at these schools, must be to require that school rules be drafted and interpreted in consultation with learners, particularly Black learners and parents. In this learners may find strong support from activist organisations, the Department of Basic Education and the public.

The long-term project will be to eradicate a legal and political way of thinking and being that is only capable of “accommodating” Black children by first categorising them as out-of-place in their own schools and then protecting their right to be different.

Bhavna Ramji is an Attorney at SECTION27 working on the right to basic education. Tim Fish Hodgson is a former Legal Researcher at SECTION27.


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