It’s all coming back to me now

2016-09-04 13:20
Shandukani Mulaudzi

Shandukani Mulaudzi

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I will never forget the moment when it occurred to me that the school rules at my now infamous alma mater were not based on any understanding of who I am.

I was 16 going on 17 on a trip to the World Choir Games in Xiamen, China.

As was the practice at the school, a member of management always came on school trips with us and, in our case, it was the school principal herself, Mrs Penny McNair.

We had gone for a hike in a Chinese jungle and at the top of the mountain, after screeching girls had removed leeches from their ankles, we stood around talking.

I was standing near Mrs McNair when she politely asked me if I had dreadlocks on my head.

I said no, and explained that my hair was called braids and that those were twisted braids.

She asked me what dreads looked like and I told her that the hair of one of the black teachers at the time, Mrs Yvonne Mathole, was locked. She asked me what the difference was.

You see, when I was there, our hair battle was around dreadlocks.

The school had continuously turned down our requests for that rule to be amended, because they said dreadlocks were untidy and dirty.

This was the school’s response at every meeting of the representative council of learners, but the principal had clearly just demonstrated that they had no idea what they had banned.

My friends and I attended school at a time when following the correct procedures was the only way you could defy the status quo.

We are the children born in the 1980s, whom Nolwazi Tusini called the “80s Cohort” in her Ruth First Memorial Address last month.

Tusini put it aptly. Ours was a generation that wanted to collaborate.

Ours was a generation that questioned from within the system. Ours was the generation that was grateful and believed that through the system, our voices would be heard.

Even if it didn’t happen overnight, we believed it was necessary to push for those who would come after us. So, naturally, when the rule to ban dreadlocks was lifted, we rejoiced at our universities.

But let’s just get this hair debate out of the way, because, yes, hair has been central to conversations on social media, but that’s not the issue here.

I am sick and tired of those calling this petty and denying us our right to express our pain, anger and frustration.

We have been denied the opportunity to belong as white girls belong.

We have been denied the opportunity to own spaces proudly without fear of speaking up for ourselves in “the wrong way”.

It was incredible to see old girls sharing their stories on my WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter feeds.

We were told we laughed and spoke too loudly. We were told to behave like ladies. We were told we simply did not cut it as leaders because we “could not control” the black girls.

We were told we could only eat our chicken after everyone had left the dining hall at the hostel because we ate with our hands – this was barbaric, uncivilised. We were the butt of teachers’ jokes about our large lips.

We were told we could not wear our cultural beads, a symbol of protection from the ancestors when one has lost a parent.

We were forced to wear those beads on our wrists, covered with a jersey, because they were considered jewellery and the school did not care about the cultural significance.

This while Indian girls wore their nose rings. We were told to behave when it really meant assimilate.

But we didn’t want to. We did not want to be cultured as per their definition.

We resorted to calling ourselves “ghetto”, because we did not fit into their picture-perfect “urban black” mould.

We were told not to play our “indigenous” games at school because the school was not the township, it was unladylike and all these other reasons stated for why we could not just enjoy our youth. We were children.

As a journalist, I avoid showing emotion during briefings, because we’ve been trained to do so.

But as I heard the current girls share their stories, the memories of how we were broken down came flooding back.

The names they called out with each story were the same. I cried. Other black women in the room cried too, because we are them and they are us.

It was as if I were looking at myself and my friends at a different time, in a space that was the same yet different.

It was like déjà vu.


Did your school’s hair rules affect your cultural identity, and how did you and your friends deal with that?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword HAIR. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    pretoria girls high school  |  racism  |  identity

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