Dread not our afros
The dress codes of former model C schools should be questioned, say activists, parents and pupils after a spat over hairstyles at a Pretoria school caused a national outcry.
Pupils at Pretoria Girls High School clashed with school officials this week, staging a protest over a policy that allegedly led to black pupils being told to straighten their natural hair.
The furore comes as a UCT dermatologist told a Department of Science and Technology conference in Pretoria yesterday that hair-straightening technology was dangerous and outdated.
"All hair has to be brushed, neatly tied back if long enough, and be kept out of the face ... Cornrows, natural dreadlocks and single/braids (with or without extensions) are allowed ... provided they are a maximum 10mm in diameter...", the school's policy reads.
Since the protest other schools have come under fire for similar policies, which in some instances only specify that hair should be "neat".
In Port Elizabeth, a Grade 12 pupil, Unathi Gongxeka, said she felt "violated and victimised" after an incident on Friday when teachers at Lawson Brown High School told her she would not be allowed to write her trial examinations until she tied up or straightened her afro hairstyle.
Two teachers allegedly told her to straighten or "relax" her hair before they attempted to tie up her afro in order "to make it more beautiful".
The school has denied claims of racism and that Gongxeka was instructed to straighten her hair. The school, however, did confirm that the matric class was told to "neaten" their hair before arriving to write their trial examinations, which start today.
The Eastern Cape Education Department yesterday said it was investigating the incident.
Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi met Pretoria Girls High School leaders and pupils yesterday and said he was touched by what he was told by pupils, many of them in tears.
"I have a natural afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a bird's nest," one pupil said, adding she was given a brush and told to neaten her hair.
Another, whose hair was manhandled by a teacher, was told she had to cut it.
Lesufi said he would meet the school governing body to resolve the issue.
Commentators have raised concerns about how teachers have interpreted school policies.
"Neatness is about bathing, showering and shampooing your hair but how you wear your hair has nothing to do with the SGB or the principal of the school," said Palesa Morudu.
She said school policies needed to evolve.
"It's emotional for black people because our hair has been policed for a very long time. It's about how we walk, talk and wear our hair," she said.
Actress Florence Masebe who was recently called a "hobo" on Twitter for wearing her hair naturally, said black girls needed to be taught natural hair was beautiful.
"We need more voices that say I am beautiful [ naturally] and so are you. Rather than voices that say their [black] hair is wrong and problematic or that their skin tone is wrong and problematic.
"We are all beautiful."
This is not the first time the country has faced outrage from parents regarding hair policies in schools.
On 17 July 2012 the SA Human Rights Commission ruled on a complaint by Vumile Ernest Mokgatla, a Grade 11 pupil at Hodisa Technical Secondary School in the Free State.
He had been suspended for refusing to cut off his dreadlocks.
The commission ruled that the school had discriminated against him on religious grounds because he was a Rastafarian.
The commission said it could not comment on the Pretoria Girls High matter, but said anyone could lay a complaint if they felt there had been a rights violation.
The Basic Education Department said there was no national policy on school dress as each school governing body was empowered to decide on dress code.
Department spokesman Troy Martens said parents were encouraged to raise these issues in governing body meetings and propose changes.
Speaking at The Legacy of Apartheid on Black Image conference yesterday, Nonhlanhla Khumalo said the active ingredient in hair- straightening products was sodium hydroxide, which was discovered and patented in the early 20th century, more than 100 years ago.
She said the product was extremely damaging and individual case studies, large academic studies of populations and studies in the lab showing what the chemical did, all pointed to the conclusion that relaxers could cause hair loss, irreversible skin scarring and damage.
"There is no hair relaxer that is safe for your skin."