Equal Education (EE) is outraged at current media reports of discrimination at several schools, including Lawson Brown High in Port Elizabeth, and Pretoria High School for Girls (PHGS) in Gauteng, where black learners are prohibited from wearing their hair in afros, because this is apparently untidy and unkept. Unfortunately we are not unsurprised that many school governing bodies (SGBs) continue to enforce rules that are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
In many schools across the country, we have discovered deep-seated racism, sexism and all sorts of other prejudices to be present in schools’ codes of conduct, in admissions and fee exemptions policies, and in management practices and institutional culture.
We have in the past intervened to assist Rastafarian, foreign, and pregnant learners, all of whom were either unlawfully barred from enrolling in school, or staying in school, due to discriminatory practices. The root cause is institutional prejudice –schools are either ignorant of the law or prepared to disregard it. In too many instances, there is a lack of oversight from provincial departments of education as a result, SGBs are able to make arbitrary rules with impunity.
We can cite a litany of such cases, including:
- At Lawson Brown High, pupil Unathi Gongxeka said she felt “violated and victimised” when teachers told her last week to either tie up or straighten her hair. The school has denied that Gongxeka was told to straighten her hair, but the school’s deputy principal thought it acceptable to be quoted in The Herald as saying: “It looks as if someone who got up in the morning and did not brush their hair”. Other learners with afros fear that they will not be allowed to write their matric supplementary exams if they continued to wear their hair in that way.
- In 2013, the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) went to court to defend a Rastafari learner who wore her hair in dreadlocks. She was victimised by the school and barred from the classroom as it was against the code of conduct – despite her dreadlocks being part of her religion. The school refused to change the code of conduct and the girl missed four months of schooling . The court found in her favour. The judgment appealed to the “powers that be, to educate and make our people aware of the importance and advantages of religious diversity.” Astoundingly, days after the court order, the principal and the chair of the SGB disrupted teaching and learning by yanking learners out of class, raging that no learning would take place while exceptions were being made for certain learners. This is a classic example of how schools perpetuate discrimination and victimise learners, and further illustrates the very real cost to the learners in both psychological and educational terms. This type of behaviour cannot be allowed in a democratic State!
It must be stressed that, while discrimination and exclusion happen at affluent and impoverished schools alike, hair in particular is one aspect of a broader process whereby black learners at many former model C schools are forced to assimilate to the dominant institutional culture. It is entirely unfair to force learners to sacrifice an aspect of their selfhood in order to receive a quality education.
Racist prejudice is being expressed in the language of undemocratic school governance. South Africa’s schools continue to be dominated by hierarchical and authoritarian power relations. Just as racism must be rooted out of these institutions, so too must their modes of governance be transformed so that it will not be possible for learners to be victimised like this in future.
We stand in full support of the black learners at PHSG, at Lawson High, and at all other South African schools who protest against injustice. In a country where the majority of the population is black, it is outrageous that natural black hair is still frowned upon. This discrimination undermines learners’ dignity and confidence, and limits their right to education. For too long, black people have been made to conform to white standards of beauty. Such colonial and apartheid stereotypes must be dismissed with serious contempt.
We call on:
The rights of learners to education and dignity must be of paramount importance, and EE will not rest until this is the case!
For further comment:
Nombulelo Nyathela (EE Spokesperson) 060 503 4933
Leanne Jansen-Thomas (EE Head of Policy and Training) 079 494 9411
Tshepo Motsepe (EE General Secretary) 071 886 5637