Short back and sides, no afros please: SA schools still cling to traditional rules in 2020

What is the hair policy at your child's school?
What is the hair policy at your child's school?
“I have a natural afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a bird’s nest.”

It seems that SA is never in short supply of stories involving hectic school rules deeming natural hair and afro styles as unruly and untidy, the most recent occurring at one Western Cape-based school. 

Late last year, a group of female high school pupils alleged that they had been told to 'fix' their natural or be expelled.

While the school denies these allegations, the Western Cape Department of Education has called for the school to take a deeper look at its Code of Conduct.

And remember back in 2016 when a Pretoria girls school made headlines when learners shut down the school in protests against the alleged racism and abuse against black pupils?

One learner told Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi a teacher referred to her natural hair as a bird’s nest, while other learners said teachers wouldn’t allow them to speak their “township languages” in class.

The high school was to reassess their uniform policies and code of conduct after it once again spurred discussion and debate around racism in South Africa. Then, it was 22 years into democracy.

In the hope of finding that these policies and regulations have changed, we looked at the hair- and appearance rules for a variety of schools across South Africa. And yes, many are still following the more traditional hair rules for boys and girls.

Also read: How much say should parents have over their child's hairstyle? One mom got an earful when she turned to the internet for answers

So we did a round-up of the most common hair regulations we found, followed by a few exceptions we spotted. Here then we present the State of the School Nation's Hair Rules:

For boys:

  • Hair must not be coloured, dyed or styled.
  • Hair must be clean and neat and always brushed or combed.
  • Hair may not be too long or have too much volume: it may not reach the collar of their shirts, touch their eyebrows (some schools specify the hair should be 2 finger widths above the eyebrows) or their ears.
  • Sideburns may only extend halfway down the ear.
  • Hair also shouldn’t be too short: no less than a number 4 is acceptable, unless “cultural norms” apply.
  • Some schools specify that hair on top of the head should be in proportion to the length of the hair on the sides and back.
  • No braiding, plaiting, spiking, mullets, mohawks, undercuts, steps, zigzags or shaved-in paths are allowed.
  • No extensions are allowed.
  • Gel or mousse is not allowed either.
  • And boys are to be clean-shaven at all times.

For girls:

  • Girls may not alter the colour of their hair in any way.
  • Few schools allow braids, dreads and afros, but the schools that do also specify it should be in the natural hair colour of the learner. Some say hair may be braided, but it should be in straight lines, flat against the head, with the ends not exceeding 2cms in length.
  • Hair must be clean and neat, and as for fringes, the hair should not hang in front of the eyes and, in some cases, touch the eyebrows.
  • Hair may not be (partly) shaved.
  • Hair that touches the shoulders must be tied up.
  • No extensions are allowed.
  • Hair accessories must be plain black or brown to match the colour of the hair, or the dominant uniform colour.
  • The latter also applies to headscarves, should girls be allowed to wear them as part of their school uniform.

Also read: What's your school's policy on hair?

    A few extra rules:

    • Girls may not alter the colour of their hair, but concessions can be made to Grade 12 learners on a yearly basis. That being said, one school explicitly indicated that particularly after matric dance season, boys may not return to school with bleached hair.
    • In some instances, boys are allowed to have their hair shorter on the sides and back, and a little longer on top. It may even exceed the 3cm-on-top rule at one school, but only if it’s incorporated into a comb-over style. The same school also explicitly states, “NO mohawks”.
    • Some schools still aren’t accepting of everyone’s natural hair, and dreadlocks, braids, extensions and afros aren’t allowed in these schools. Some schools classified these hairstyles as “wild”, “big” or “foreign".

    As for accessories:

    • No diamanté clips, butterflies and flowers in your hair, please.
    • No tattoos.
    • Only plain ear studs are allowed, one each side, and in the ear lobe.
    • If you’re going to wear a watch, it cannot have lots of little beads on them so as to resemble a pretty bracelet. A plain strap will do, to remind you you’ve been restrained and held captive by the public school system.
    • Further, one schools states "a girl should be proud of the appearance of her hands".


    • As far as penalities go, one school says learners will have 2 days to fix any and all hair transgressions. But, just so we’re clear, “NO bandanas.”
    • Another says the grade head and deputy will monitor hair and if it doesn’t fulfill the standards as set out by the school’s code of conduct, they will be sent home to cut or shave their hair.
    • While other schools will involve the Discipline Portfolio or call on the headmistress to make the final decision.

    Unisex hair rules:

    Many schools still seem to follow a combination of the above rules and regulations when it comes to hair, and for the most part girls and boys have separate sets of rules.

    We’re sure many schools established these rules on the basis that learners look neat and presentable at all times as a good reflection on the school. But who says learners can’t look smart while transforming gender norms and stereotypes?

    If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that millennials, and now Gen Z, won’t stand for the same things many baby boomers did and still do.

    So after much discussion, schools such as Westerford High School have started transforming their uniform policies for boys and girls.

    Westerford High School principal, Rob Le Roux, told News24, “Boys will be allowed to wear ponytails, as long as it is tied back, clipped and neat.” Man-buns would also be allowed, again, as long as it looks tidy.

    Also read: Boys can have long hair too, and other truths for trolls

    “There is nothing about any ethnicity in our rules at all. Braids, cornrows and afros will be allowed as long as these are neat and tidy.”

    Further, boys would also now be allowed to wear sleepers and studs, just as girls’ summer dresses would be phased out for the more comfortable golf shirt and skirt or skort.

    So who says we can’t look good and presentable while transforming gender norms and stereotypes?

    Le Roux said many had praised the school for their progressive way of thinking, and as they should.

    A school system that perpetuates oppressive stereotypes is surely misleading learners on what is and isn’t acceptable, not only at school, but in the greater society.

    And it’s ironic really, for an institution should in fact be molding young minds and enlightening impressionable youth.

    It’s encouraging to know that our youth, in their crisp, pressed shirts and neatly combed hair, know who they are and what is and isn’t acceptable.

    If the system won’t listen, you best believe they’re going to fight it. And if schools don’t know exactly what to do, don’t worry, Gen Z will school you.

    What is the hair policy at your child's school? Do you think we've become more progressive and transformed hair rules and regulations? 

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