Recent news around former Model C girls' schools remind us how difficult it is to be black in those spaces


Earlier this month there was outrage over news of Rustenburg Girls' Junior School's (RGJS) only black teacher Nozipho Mthembu's controversial departure.

According to reports, Mthembu – an alumnus of RGJS – was perpetually exposed to unpleasant treatment by the school, resulting in a breaking point where she resigned. 

READ MORE: Top Cape Town girls' school caught in transformation row

And this week, the top Cape Town girls' school has made headlines again for allegedly discouraging an underprivileged pupil from applying at the school. The Cape Times reported that the school "came under fire for suggesting that a black pupil would not fit in at the prestigious school after a generous couple reached out and offered to pay for all 12 years of the underprivileged girl’s fees".

We have reached out to the school for comment regarding a way forward on the matter and we will update as soon as we receive a response.

In the meantime, as an alumnus of a girls' school in the Eastern Cape much like RGJS and other "prestigious girls' schools", I would like to unpack how the above two incidents are a symptom of the decades-long systematic oppression in former Model C girls' schools in our country.

South Africa's post-apartheid schools may have opened their doors to black pupils, but what that meant was that a lot of the time, we had to leave our blackness at the gate and assimilate.

From policing our hair to forbidding us to speak our home languages at school, a black girl's experience at these schools involves navigating racial micro-aggressions as a means of survival. 

An Old Girl's experience

During my school years (at an all girls' school) I was completely oblivious to the extent of my assimilation.

I assimilated so much that other black girls called me "Coco" (short for coconut) – an example of how those who assimilate more than others also end up getting alienated by fellow black peers too.

At the time I merely thought I just got along better with white girls, but it was only in my senior high school years that I realised I had absolutely nothing in common with my white circle of friends besides living in the 'burbs and attending the same school, but by then the perils of assimilation had caught up with me and, ultimately, I faced alienation from both sides.

On the one side, for calling out white privilege and on the other, for my immature rejection of blackness.

There are hundreds more like me, who shared the same epiphany either towards the end of high school or in their first year of varsity (including those at our brother schools):

My response to the above tweet? I do indeed.

A few examples:

"Those of you from Mdantsane will know." – A teacher gesturing at us, the only four black girls in her English class and none of whom actually lived in Mdantsane (a township just outside East London). 

"This is not a township school. Wear your uniform properly." – This is a common one in most schools.

"Cackling hyenas." – Our science teacher whenever he heard a group of us laughing in class.

"Those kinds of hairstyles are not allowed here." – When teachers referred to dreadlocks, twist-outs and various cornrow hairstyles, while our white peers could leave school blonde on Friday afternoon and return on Monday morning with dark hair. 

Of course, we never called out these racial micro-aggressions perhaps both due to our own naiveté and our need to be favoured by white teachers. The same teachers who now do not recognise us at the mall when we return to our home towns. 

My personal experience of attending an all girls' school has therefore led me to critique the teachers more than the pupils, as they were (and continue to be) the gatekeepers of the subtle racism that characterises former Model C girls' schools, which inadvertently grants white girls the freedom to neither interrogate their privilege nor feel compelled to dismantle the hierarchies that favour them.

Hierarchies that made it compulsory for juniors to watch first team hockey games and not first team netball games on derby days because the latter team was predominantly black.

Hierarchies that make swimming a compulsory Phys-Ed activity because white pupils can always show up, so it's never understood why black girls cannot do the same, resulting in minor penalties when we "forget" our swimming gear every now and then when our recently relaxed (and paid for) hair could not afford to deep-dive into assimilation anymore. 

READ MORE: Relaxer sales have dropped almost 20% in SA as women choose natural hair

Hair continues to be a highly contentious issue in girls' schools today. As more girls of colour embrace their natural hair, schools are struggling to reciprocate the embrace, placing arbitrary restrictions on 'ethnic hairstyles' instead.

Policing natural hair

Over the past few years, a few girls' schools around the country have come under scrutiny for their hair rules. In 2016, a hair protest ensued after pupils at Pretoria High School for Girls spoke out against the school's code of conduct relating to hairstyles, which was claimed to discriminate against natural hair in particular. 

READ MORE: These are the 4 hairstyles students claim are banned at Pretoria High School for Girls 

Zulaikha Patel emerged as one of the anti-racism activists at her school in 2016

In Grahamstown, Victoria Girls' High School's code of conduct has similar hair restrictions, which cite that the girls may not grow their afros longer than 5cm. In 2016, I enquired about this hair rule at the school and a teacher at the school informed me that it was not strictly enforced. After inquiring further this week, VGHS Principal Warren Schmidt furnished us with the following information:

"In 2016 we wholly suspended our hair rules.  The idea was to monitor the behaviour of our learners for a year and then make a decision as to whether the suspension would be lifted or whether our rules would change moving forward."

Schmidt added that "in 2017 we ratified the permanent suspension of hair rules at VGHS.  Currently a committee of learners, along with a teacher, deal with any hair issues that may have been passed onto them.  I’m not sure that they’ve had to convene this year at all.  The guidelines for the committee are that hair should look neat, be out of a learner’s face and be a natural hair colour.

"This system seems to be working for us.  While I have had Old Girls bemoaning the lack of control over hair and occasionally muttering about learners they may have seen in town with a hairstyle that they would not have been allowed to have, the removal of all the minutiae that used to be attached to hair has served us well.

The only reason the rules appear as they do in the Code of Conduct is because this document was last revised in 2016 (for 2017 to 2019) and the suspension of the rules for a year as a trial period did not mean that the rules disappeared.  That said, in the 2020 to 2022 version of the Code there will probably only be a reference to the Hair Committee to resolve potential concerns and the three guidelines I mentioned above."

READ MORE: This girl was suspended for showing her knees because she needs to consider "guys and their hormones"

Last year, a Facebook post about a Kempton Park headmistress sending girls home for "inappropriate" hairstyles went viral. The viral post alleged that a headmistress at Windsor House Academy kicked out a group of girls with 'inappropriate' hairstyles - specifically braids.

When W24 spoke to one of the girls who had been kicked out, the 18 year old said, "She told us that we cannot do anything about it necessarily because it’s a private school and according to the code of conduct that we’re supposed to look a certain way and we’re not supposed to have this type of hair."

READ MORE: Kempton Park principal allegedly sends girls home from school for 'inappropriate' hairstyles

In incidents such as these, not even the single black teacher can speak in defense of a student who has supposedly "broken" the rules because their authority is often undermined.

The invisible black educators

Former Model C girls' schools are not only alienating for their black pupils, but for their educators of colour too.

Nozipho Mthembu's case at RGJS points to an unavoidable example of this. Because for so long, we all thought the only position black teachers can fill at such institutions is that of a home language teacher – any other subject can seemingly only be taught by white teachers. In the cases where they teach anything else besides IsiXhosa or IsiZulu, their credibility is questioned.

But even the language teachers - as usually the only staff members of colour – are not respected; girls misbehave in their classes, they're over familiar with them, and their accents are regularly imitated as comedic relief at break time. It was always uncomfortable to witness, as you know that in any other setting outside of school that is uMama or uSisi to you, yet we remained complicit for fear of appearing too sensitive.

Today, this hesitance to call problematic behaviour out persists, because now we don't want to be the "angry black woman." I'd imagine it's the same then, when you are the only person of colour in the staff room and the classroom. 

Next year, it will be 10 years since I was in matric, yet school children as young as 7 years old today are still subjected to the same racial hostility and alienation we faced. We still have a long way to go in terms of transformation at the schools our parents so proudly took us to. 

We haven't received a response from Rustenburg Girls' Junior School and Windsor House Academy in Kempton Park at the time of publication.

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