Johannesburg – Minister for Women Susan Shabangu on Tuesday praised the pupils from Pretoria High School for Girls for standing up for themselves.
"Keep up the good work, young girls, it is very important," she told News24 shortly after addressing a TechnoGirl event in Sandton, Johannesburg.
Shabangu said it was important for girls to be aware that they were beautiful and did not need to change themselves to feel beautiful.
"Preserve your beauty, preserve your identity, be identified as you want. Don’t allow yourselves to be undermined or to be turned into a person you are not.
"Your blackness, your hair, is your identity and you need to preserve that."
Code of Conduct
Some black pupils claim a section of the school's code of conduct relating to hairstyles is discriminatory. They held a protest at the school fair on Saturday.
On Monday, many of the girls expressed their dissatisfaction with the treatment they received over their hair. Others spoke about the treatment they received at the weekend, referring to the presence of armed guards and dogs on the school premises.
According to the school’s 36-page Code of Conduct, pupils can wear braids, cornrows or dreadlocks, but only if they are a maximum of 10mm in diameter.
All hair has to be brushed, neatly tied back if long enough, and kept out of the face. No patterned cornrows are allowed. Longer braids have to be tied back. No decorations or beads are allowed in the hair.
"No dyeing, bleaching, highlighting, colouring, colour washing, colour rinsing, or shaving of hair in any way is allowed.
"Singles/braids must be the same length and be the natural colour of the girl’s hair. Longer braids must be tied back."
Mother tongue not allowed
Nowhere does the code specifically forbid an afro hairstyle.
The girls however claimed school rules prohibited African hairstyles such as afros, bantu knots, dreadlocks, and braids.
They alleged they were not allowed to speak their mother tongue and that a teacher called them monkeys when they were singing and chanting in class.
"I must say I am very disappointed and very embarrassed and condemn it highly," Shabangu said. "Somebody being forced to have a particular kind of hair is absolutely unacceptable."
Based on what the girls were saying, the school appeared to be racist and was attempting to continue classifying women in a particular way, she said.
"That is very wrong, and unacceptable in our country."
She urged the education department to make school policies such as codes of conduct more transparent and inclusive.
"There must be more or less a general framework which guides schools on their codes of conduct in ensuring there is no racism, that there is transparency, but also allows the young people to exercise what they believe is right."