Some schools still classify afros as wild and foreign: Are the true intentions of such rules just a tactic to keep black girls out?

Photo by Andrew Robinson
Photo by Andrew Robinson

Our democracy is almost 26 years old, yet school pupils still have to fight archaic school rules that were put in place before children of all races could share a classroom. 

This week's Twitter furor over a high school girl's long (and "inappropriate for school") braids was a reminder of how we've come very far, but have made no progress at all. 

In light of this, Parent24 put together a roundup of the most common hair regulations in SA, where one of the rules for girls' hair included the following; "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." 

One of the additional rules mentioned in this article is that "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'." 

This isn't the first time the hair rule and Model C school transformation topics have had many fingers jogging across smartphone screens for an entire day.

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 

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 in 2019, 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.

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

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."

In 2018, 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 a single black teacher can speak in defense of a student who has supposedly "broken" the rules because their authority is often undermined. I know this as an alumnus of a girls' school in the Eastern Cape much like Girls' High and other "prestigious girls' schools".

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.

My experience at such 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 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.

Hair continues to be a highly contentious issue in 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. It's hard not to believe that this is not just another ploy to either police black girls or keep them completely out of these schools.

Have you encountered discriminatory school rules? Share them with us here.

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