South African students speak out against 'aggressive' ban on afro hair
Students describe prejudice at prestigious Pretoria school where natural hair was deemed ‘untidy’ and ‘un-ladylike’
Malaika Maoh Eyoh, a 17-year-old student at the prestigious Pretoria high school for girls, remembers the first time she was told by a teacher that her afro was “distracting others from learning”.
She said the comment was “aggressive”, and made her feel “really scared to come to school”. With her hair now braided, Eyoh was one of more than 100 young women to protest against the school for allegedly forcing black students to straighten their hair.
There were a lot of emotions because the last five years of our high school student careers had built up to this,” said Eyoh.
“[After the march] it blew up a lot faster and harder than we thought it would,” she added. Images of the protest went viral in South Africa and an online petition against the alleged hair policy gathered more than 10,000 signatures after it was created on Friday.
In response, Panyaza Lesufi, the head of education in Gauteng province, has ordered an independent audit of the school “to investigate all the claims of racism”.
“The code of conduct ... is insensitive to different people and discriminates badly against black pupils as it asks them to straighten their hair,” Lesufi said on Tuesday. “That is not fair because some pupils have natural[ly curly] hair so we have agreed with the student governing body that it be suspended
Political parties also jumped on the issue, with the ANC Women’s League and Democratic Alliance issuing statements denouncing the alleged policy. The Economic Freedom Fighters party accused the school of seeking “to directly suppress blackness in its aesthetics and culture”.
‘I’m still angry’
Eyoh, sitting with her friend, Palesa Sidibe, two days after the protests, said the pair could recall many instances of discrimination over the past few years.
I’m 23 years old now and the wounds from my high school experience have really affected me
They described a student who was pulled out of class and given Vaseline to flatten her hair. And a time when a teacher referred to Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists. Eyoh and Sidibe say collectively these stories show how many young women in South Africa’s prestigious schools have been told “not to be black”.
The Pretoria girls’ school was historically attended by whites only, but now admits black children following the end of apartheid in 1994. The school’s code of conduct has a list of rules about hair, but does not specifically mention the afro hairstyle.
Leago Mamabolo, 18 and in her final year at the school, said students had simply had enough of the discriminatory treatment. Leago’s hair was referred to as a “bird’s nest” because of her dreadlocks. “You’re in fear when you go to school because you know you will be policed,” she said.
Since news of the protests went viral, many former students of South Africa’s historically white schools have spoken up, reflecting on their own experiences.
Lizwe Ncakula, who went to a school in Cape Town, said she was told her hair was not “ladylike”.
“It took years to undo that damage not only to my scalp but my sense of self-love and appreciation for who I am.”
Busiwe Kabane said she was still hurt by her experience at a school in Bloemfontein. “I’m 23 years old now, I’m still angry. It has affected my confidence in my abilities. I’m hyper-vigilant and mistrusting of almost any white space.”
In response to Lesufi’s announcement, the head of the school’s governing body released a statement pledging that Pretoria girls “will work closely with the learners, teachers, the department of education and the broader school community to ensure that everybody can feel included and welcomed in the school”.
Eyoh said despite the examples of racism there are positive aspects to the school. You can get a good education and the teachers are decent, “but there’s stuff like this that needs to be spoken about. It’s not just irises and fun green dresses”.