Natural Growth

It’s time for broad changes to policies that erase black students

Words: Phumlani Pikoli | Illustration: Kelly Poole

The more things change, the more they don’t. A conversation around racist hair and language policies at the Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG), is highlighting just how far the country’s educational institutions are from addressing the systemic injustices of the past. The school’s own pupils protested these unfair practices this past weekend at the long-established annual Spring Fair. There, the pupils were met with threats of arrest by private security and police, sparking a nationwide conversation about, well, why we still need to have these conversations.

“The actions were always subtle – straighten your hair to keep it neat, don’t congregate in large groups as you’ll make a noise, speak in English so we can all understand each other,” says Atlarelang Phatudi, speaking of her former high school. Atlarelang was Pretoria High School for Girls’ first black head girl in the school’s history in 2005. Her 11-year-old reflections of the institution where she received her secondary education mirror the school’s current state. “I think that’s why 16 years after I started high school this is still an issue. The rule book only accommodated ‘white’ hair and I found it strange that those same rules were used to punish black girls”.

Thithi Nteta attended PHSG 1998-2002, and is understandably proud of the actions that current pupils are taking. “None of us had the courage to stand up and do something like this. We spoke about it at break, we spoke about it in the corridors, we complained about it to each other. I mean the times when it came out the most, this whole thing about hairstyles and how your blackness is something that is really considered ‘other’ in environments where it shouldn’t be, was around events like the matric dance… it was always around big occasions that were important to all of us and we were just not given the freedom to do or be whatever we wanted to be.”

Nteta was the deputy head girl in her final year. Her experiences of attending the high school may sound like they’re from a past that has no place in the modern day, yet they confront the very same issues that today’s generation of black pupils attending PHSG are fighting against.

“I remember getting Alicia Keys-inspired cornrows sans the beads and having to take them out two days afterwards because they were ‘exotic’. That's what the rule book said – ‘no exotic hairstyles’,” Nteta recalls. “Hearing all of the things that these young girls are being told by white school teachers and the school rules is hitting a nerve with me because that's exactly how I experienced school. Especially high school.” Chillingly, many of the codes of conduct that have been seen over the past few days on Twitter do not mention black students’ hair. Afros as such are not banned, and natural hair doesn’t get a mention – instead, the words “conservative” and “exotic”, with all of their attendant value judgements, stand in as shorthand for what is and isn’t acceptable.

“Whilst I am beaming with pride at the remnant spirits of Mama Lilian Ngoyi, Mam' Madikizela Mandela, Mam' Angela Davis and all the other Mbokodo's, Nompendulo Mkhatshwa (a PHGS old girl and one of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement), I am also saddened… Are we really discussing black women's hair in 2016? Are we really discussing black identity when there are mental and emotional issues (South) Africa has not dealt with? Gerrrarhere (get out of here). In the midst of a leadership crisis… Nah.” Says Lindelwa Skenjana, reflecting on her feelings about the mess at the high school she attended from 2001 to 2005.

It’s hard to completely divorce this moment from the decolonial fight being waged at the country’s tertiary institutions. Just over a year ago, students descended on the capital to take on the government on the lawns of the Union Buildings. Black pupils in one of the capital’s most prestigious schools are now fighting the institution head on. These are children as young as 13. It’s hard not to romanticise and entertain the idea that the country’s real revolutionaries are not yet born.

A petition with thousands of signatures addressed to the Gauteng Education MEC of Education, Panyaza Lesufi, had on it a list of grievances including the fact that pupils were stopped from speaking African languages by teachers and even stopped from forming groups of two or more. This might be a good time to point out that there’s a situation playing out here about more than hair. These children are being policed forced to conform to standards dictated by whiteness. While hidden behind terms like school “tradition” and “children”, we can look to the other terms like “assimilation.” They’re obviously the new Swart Gevaar.

This might also be a good time to address the fact this is not a moment for black men to police black women. We have our own shit to deal with, without taking on what we think black women should look like according to our standards. Can we please get off the internet talking about how black women must embrace their natural hair? They don’t need our approval, and more importantly haven’t invited us to this party. I wish I could tell 15-year-old me rapping at the Girls High Spring Fair the same thing. Stop trying to tell people what to do with their bodies and hair.

The fact that these rules, which seek to exoticise black bodies in educational institutions, still exist in 2016 should come as no shock to anyone. What’s surprising is that there’s been no probe from the department of education about how to make schools across SA safe spaces for all students. Today, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has called for a suspension of the PGHS code of conduct, and the creation of an inclusive replacement. But what’s urgently needed is a commitment to ensure that schools don’t continue to try to make pupils internalise racism. To stop schools from making kids hate themselves and aspire to be everything else but themselves. These stories will continue to come out of this old bastions of privilege and power and we’ll pretend to be shocked every time. My question though, what else is an afro but hair subjected to natural growth?