30 August 2016

South Africa: Pens Down, Curls Out

Photo: Mishka Wazar/Daily Vox
Young black girls at some South African schools have taken a stand against hair rules that have led to accusations of racism.

Students speak out about the politics of hair

This week saw the nation stand firmly behind young girls at Pretoria Girls High who took a stand against discriminatory and racist practices in their school. Linda Fekisi and Lebogang Mokoena spoke to women on their campus about the vulnerability of young black girls who find themselves faced with Eurocentric school rules and how #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh is about much, much more than afros, dreads and knots.

We're told things like" "You are really loud" - Ntando PZ Mbatha (28) UFS student

It's taken 13-year-old girls to make us speak out about institutional racism, this week has had me reflect on the injustices I faced in high school. I remember one time my teacher said to my friend, "you are acting wild like your culture". Lots of people complained but two of us were taken to the Principal's office and I remember the deputy principal saying "if I had to tell you now that you must go to a Sangoma when you are sick, would you take offence."

I was told to go back to the teacher and apologise, but my militant self went back to tell her she was wrong. She only became my Biology teacher again in Grade 12 and on the first day of class she told everyone what I did two years before. I knew then that I wouldn't get that A in Biology.

My Geography teacher, in 2004 said to me "Ntando, I really spoke on your behalf to become a prefect, but the other teachers think you are really loud". Never mind the fact that I was a well performing learner. I could go on and on. Like when I won an essay writing competition, I wasn't honoured in school like the previous learner, instead I was asked for that essay I wrote so that the teachers can see how good it is.

It is low key racism - Sandile Mabena (21) UJ student

This is all subliminal. I feel like it is racism but it is low key racism. It is not out there but it is basically racism because now white people leave their hair... but when a black people leaves their Afro or... it is a problem. Why is it a problem when a black person does a natural thing... So, I think it is subtle. It is racism but it is just right there. It is hidden, it is under cover.

They make us feel our hair is not good enough - Khethiwe Mbele (25) UJ student

I went to a Model C school, it was the school's policies and code of conduct that you would never have your natural hair unless it is in a plat, neat and relaxed. I do not understand why it is an issue now whereas it has been there. It has been existing. People know about this thing from white schools and Model C schools. It is our hair. We need to have confidence in our natural hair as well. They make us feel our hair is not good enough. We need to have confidence and embrace our natural hair.

We were told that dreadlocks stink and are untidy. These were the perceptions we were taught. This thing of not allowing black people to embrace their hair has impacted us in a very big way. Now we all want to wear Brazilian hair and that is the only thing that makes us feel beautiful. Fake hair. Without Brazilian hair, you do not think that you are pretty. Because this has been brought up since we were growing up. That your hair is not good enough for you, white people have proper hair.

But I like looking neat - Tsebeletso Mpiti (20) UFS student

Today I find myself being forced to be hypocritical because I'm black. And as a Black person, I'm supposed to support every movement against White people otherwise I will be judged and spoken of as "the one who supports the oppressors". But then what am I supposed to do when I like looking neat? When I've never personally perceived it as oppression when one of the rules and regulations at both my schools was that hair should be neat and tidy at all times. Whether you're black or white. I never thought of it as oppression when my friends who went to "black schools" used to tell me how lucky we were at my school to be able to do whatever it is that we wanted with our hair when all they could do was cornrows or keep their hair tied at all times. I'm faced with a major dilemma here. Can I believe in following rules, that I knew were there from the get-go and still say I'm proudly African? What to do?

Hair is political - Asanda Bikitsha (23) UJ student

I went to a private school during my lower grades and I had to relax [my hair] because they would say that my afro is all over the place. I had to relax it because apparently I could not maintain it so I have to relax it because it was untidy and dirty. Looking back now, I am like f**k of you actually. This is not 1958, why are we still being policed with our hair? Hair is political. It is a statement. Hair is identity, it is black consciousness, and it is everything. It is who you are in your natural state. It is the hair that grows in you, you do not have to relax. It is more than how I wear my hair, it is a political statement.

We were really restricted - Mpumelelo Mabuza (20) UFS student

You had to have certain braiding, black or brown and that was it. If your hair was an afro you were told to 'tame it'. Your hair had to be relaxed and it was not allowed to touch your shoulder. I was one of the girls who made sure they never got caught.

If white girls had bob haircuts they didn't need to tie their hair but when black girls had long hair it had to be tied. We were restricted with hairstyles. People with dreadlocks had to tie them.

Tie it up or relax it - Sipho Mophatlane (19) UFS student

We had one or two incidents with kids with afros. They were told to tie it up or to relax it. We tried to explain to them that we don't want to relax it. I think it was better because they were in higher grades and they could stand up for themselves but for the younger kids I don't know how they dealt with it. I think because we didn't have black teachers who could understand, we only had white teachers and it was hard to relate. I remember in matric you could only have a set of hairstyles like twist and cornrows."

Lebogang is a humanitarian at heart, a self-driven female skater, with a dream to living life probing and crafting words with ink.

She graduated with honours in Journalism at UJ. The first degree she pursued was a BA in Communication Science from the University of South Africa (UNISA), with African Politics as her second major. Some of the other things she has done is tutoring second year journalism applied students at UJ in 2015.

Lebogang has devoted her time volunteering at NGO's such as Kliptown Youth Programme (KYP) and Childline Gauteng. From 2011-2014, she worked as a primary school tutor under the Department of Education's project called Extra School Support Programme (ESSP) and Kliptown Youth Programme. She is an activist and member of the Right2Know campaign. She has written for the Daily Vox, the Daily Sun and also helped to write stories about various community NGO's for R2K's publication called Right2Know Newsletter.

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