Pretoria Girls School Applies a Fine-Tooth Comb

By Alma Burke

A woman’s hair is her “crowning glory,” states the Bible,  giving her distinction and presence. For many students at the Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa, recent events have cast doubt on this whether this should apply to them.

Black students at Pretoria High protested last month on what they felt was the school’s discriminatory code of conduct policy regarding hair styles. The code states that all students’ hair must be “…conservative, neat and in keeping with a school uniform. No eccentric/fashion styles will be allowed.” The code does not directly prohibit afros or African hair styles but they are deemed unacceptable by teachers and staff of the school, according to students.

Student protests began after 13-year old student Zulaikha Patel was disciplined by school administrators for a writing assignment she submitted on “white privilege.” She was disciplined for the paper’s subject matter, as well as chastised about the unruly style of her hair, which was an afro, according to Aljazeera.

Several days later, students attended a school assembly dressed in all black and wore head wraps in protest of the discriminatory rules, and they were met by security guards who stopped them. Black and non-white students also held a silent protest at a weekend school fair, but this time there were more security guards and they had carried AK-47s and used security dogs. The security guards threatened to arrest any girls who wanted to silently protest.

pretoria_high_school_for_girls_park_street_pretoria_001All of these events ignited a national online petition to the South African Minister of Education and attracted international news and social media coverage, where #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh became an international Twitter hashtag and movement. This protest isn’t just about the discrimination of hair styles. The underlining root of these protests stems from the racial discrimination and injustices that blacks and non-whites continue to experience in what is supposed to be a post-apartheid democracy in South Africa.

The history of South Africa’s racial discrimination began during its European colonization in the 17th Century. For centuries, blacks and nonwhites, who are the country’s population majorities, lived under the system of apartheid, which left them with no political power. Blacks and minorities in South Africa lived in extreme poverty and were often imprisoned and killed. Because of this, South Africa was banned from participating in the 1964 Olympics due to their refusal to abolish apartheid. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the United Nations and other international governments stepped in to implement economic and trade sanctions on the country. It was not until 1994 that a new constitution was drafted and enforced, effectively removing the apartheid system from South African government. Pretoria High School for Girls, which was founded in 1902, did not accept black and non-white students until 1990, according to CNN.

Pretoria High School for Girls is an exclusive and private girls school, with many of its students coming from elite and prominent families from throughout the country. It is also one of the only options for quality education for many black families in Pretoria, as free, government education does not always provide quality or resources. The school’s strong educational reputation is important to mention because the school’s response to these protests appears to be silencing the voices of the nation’s next generation of leaders. The students are paying to attend this school, but in return they are being subjected to racial and cultural discrimination. The black students’ hair styles are being used as the scapegoat. But this is nothing new, according to former students.

In an NPR interview, Pretoria High graduate Tiisetso Phetla discussed the severity of the reprimand school administrators imposed on students for their “non-compliant” hairstyles. “It was very difficult because they tell you that either you look barbaric or your hair looks like a dog’s breakfast or remove that nest off your head,” she told NPR. “Why must I apologize for being African in Africa?” Phetla also mentioned the school’s code of conduct was never updated to reflect a post-apartheid democracy or diverse student body.

Twenty-two years of a post-apartheid democracy continues to exist in South Africa, which still condones inequality and injustice in the country’s educational system. “The school was founded in the earnest hope that here girls of different races and different denominations might meet in that commonwealth of letters which gave Erasmus and Shakespeare to the world,” says a quote from Pretoria High School for Girls founder Edith Aitken that is posted on the school’s website. There seems to be little reflection of this idea in the events of today, but we can hope tomorrow will be different.

Photo courtesy of PHParsons through Wikimedia Commons 

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