To outsiders, the South African protest that unfolded in a Pretoria girls’ school last week must have seemed odd. The idea that afro hairstyles or a school’s aggressive hair policy could have contributed to a racism dispute may seem superficial or strange to the average American. However, the issue underscores a set of long-standing problems within post-apartheid South Africa and the U.S.’s African-American community as well.
In Brief: African Hair
Black Africans, and by extension African-Americans, have a natural “spring-like” shape to their hair. This means that if the hair is grown out without treatment or styling, it appears denser and frizzier. Due to various cultural and social factors, natural black African hairstyles are often seen as “messy,” “unprofessional,” or otherwise “unkempt.” The association between race and hair was so strong that it was actually used during South Africa’s apartheid period to classify people when their race wasn’t clear. In the so-called “pencil test,” a pencil was pushed through the person’s hair. If it fell to the floor, they were classified as white.
Hair-related issues are not limited to South Africans, either. African-Americans also have concerns and debates regarding perceptions about their hair both inside and outside their community, as reported on previously.
The Pretoria Protest
Over the weekend, videos of a 100-student protest started to go viral. The students, girls at a Pretoria high school, were fed up with what they described as their school’s racist policies, which they believed were basically telling them “not to be black.” The protest focused primarily on the school’s hair policy, which has resulted in situations where students felt they were being punished or targeted for wearing their hair naturally. The school’s written policy, though it does not specifically address afro hair, permits cornrows, natural dreadlocks, and braids provided they are a maximum of 10 mm in diameter. However, these rules are either ignored or are arbitrarily enforced. Students also complained of hostile treatment due to their hair.
- Malaika Maoh Eyoh, 17, recalled when she was told by a teacher that her afro was “distracting others from learning.”
- Eyoh and other students described an incident where a girl was pulled out of class and given Vaseline to flatten her hair.
- There were also reports of students being told they looked like they had birds’ nests in their hair or looked like monkeys.
Incidentally, hair policies that are seen as anti-black are not new in South Africa. Two years ago, a student was sent home for a week from a Cape Town school because her braids were deemed “too thick.”
Although the Pretoria protest was mainly about the hair policy, it was the culmination of years of frustration. The student body was fed up with racist treatment, flippant responses from staff, and a general school environment that was viewed as hostile. There were also other complaints from the girls:
- The speaking of African languages was not tolerated on school premises, yet the speaking of Afrikaans, a Dutch-derived language, was tolerated. For context, Afrikaans is just one of the 11 official languages of South Africa.
- Racist abuse was directed at black students by white students and staff. They were called monkeys or “kaffir,” which is a derogatory term for a black African. There was mention of one incident where a white teacher referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.
- There were flippant responses to student complaints about racist abuse. Most students were told to simply “get over it” or were met with similarly unhelpful reactions.
A petition circulated over the weekend urging the involvement of Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng Province’s member of executive council (MEC) for education, who occupies a role similar to that of a cabinet minister. The MEC responded Monday and after listening to both the students and the school, he brought both parties to a multi-part agreement that included the suspension of the hair policy, pending a review by a representative body, along with a formal and independent investigation of the students’ claims of racist treatment.
“Media Statement on the outcomes of MEC intervention at the Pretoria High School for Girls,” Facebook web site, August 30, 2016; https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1055459924502342&id=235615369820139.